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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Parliamentary entitlements reform: a case study in slow motion

CD cover
The long awaited Belcher committee report released on 24 March and the way successive governments have handled (or not handled) federal parliamentary entitlement reform hardly engenders confidence that we are about to see anytime soon the changes necessary to ensure parliamentarians are paid appropriately for what they do, provided with support facilities to do it well, and operate within a simple clear framework that ensures the highest standards of transparency and accountability. I'll leave to others comment on the substantive recommendations for change to entitlements and services intended to be fair and equitable to parliamentarians. Comments follow on the review process, and some of the transparency and accountability issues raised in the report.

The process
The snail's pace is such that if the government hadn't said differently you would think there was little enthusiasm for the task.  And it's been a review/policy process that would struggle for a pass grade in Policy 101 in any event.

The review started 19 months ago just after concerns first raised in a 2001/2002 were raised again by the Australian National Audit Office.

To recap, on 8 September 2009 then Special Minister of State Senator Ludwig announced some changes to the system, and the appointment of a committee to undertake a review of parliamentary entitlements to report within six months. It would be the first comprehensive review of federal parliamentary entitlements in over 35 years. "We are committed to reform, openness and transparency to ensure that we maintain the trust and confidence of the Australian people,” Senator Ludwig said at the time.

No discussion or issues paper was published that might have assisted and encouraged public discussion or input into the process. The committee placed one advertisement inviting submissions in the Australian Financial Review and the Weekend Australian on 3 October 2009, put a notice on the Department of Finance website, and wrote to some potentially interested parties. 39 submissions were received, 29 were published in March 2010. The report says committee members talked to some of the authors but no public hearings were held. The committee signed off on the report on 9 April 2010 and Special Minister of State Gary Gray tabled it in Parliament on 24 March 2011,11 months after completion and 18 months after the Government announced the initiative.

Minister Gray in releasing the report said "there are many contentious issues to deal with. In order to ensure reform is comprehensive and well informed, the Government has welcomed further consideration by the Remuneration Tribunal" which is now to look at all or some recommendations. The Minister also "encourage(d public) discussion of the issues raised ..." No timelines for input and action were indicated. The end is nowhere in sight a year and a half after the reform wheels started turning.

What happened during the 11 months the Government had the report before it was released is not known. Media reports occasionally suggested consternation among MPs about some of the recommendations. If  some parliamentarians were apprised of the report's recommendations during this time the three members who spoke in Parliament on 24 March at least had been outside the loop.

In Parliament that day Minister Gray introduced legislation to give effect to one of the committee's recommendation to restore the power of the Remuneration Tribunal to determine the base salary of parliamentarians. Since 1990 the role has been advisory only. The Tribunal also will be required to make its decisions public and publish reasons for them.The Greens Adam Bandt expressed concern about voting on a bill that he had seen for the first time half an hour beforehand. All up debate took 27 minutes. None of the Committee's other recommendations were mentioned by the Minister or anyone else in debate although the Minister's media release referred to earlier implementation of a  recommendation "in relation to the staffing profile of the Opposition.., reforms to the printing and communication entitlements of Senators and Members" and that the government has "significantly expanded the reporting system to publish all expenditure related to entitlements online."  The bill passed on the voices.

No explanation was given for the delay in releasing or acting on the report, although to have glided through the election last year, by which stage the Government had the report for four months, without any public reference to the following recommendations was no doubt to the relief of incumbents:
  • 14-remove the entitlement for senators and members to use their printing and communications entitlement to produce and distribute postal vote applications,
  • 15 -the printing and communications entitlement not be available from the date of the announcement of a federal election to the day after the corresponding polling day,
  • 16 -the claiming of travelling allowance by personal staff during an election campaign when they travelled independently of their employers to the city in which their employer’s party headquarters was located, and where clearly engaged in party political business at public expense should be no longer permitted
  •  and for those  candidates successful for the first time, 20 and 21-neither the Life Gold Pass nor severance travel should be available to those entering parliament from the next election.
The Minister told Parliament that Helen Williams a former secretary of a number of Commonwealth departments, and former Public Service Commissioner, had been engaged to review the administration of entitlements by the Ministerial and Parliamentary Services Division of the Department of Finance and Deregulation. She reported in February this year. No mention was made of her findings except the "review found that greater client focus and more effective administration by the department would be facilitated by a clearer and more integrated entitlements framework." Quite.
    The report 
    I'm sure there are good ideas here that will help improve the system although parliamentarians might think otherwise, and it remains to be seen where things go from here.

    But what was was trumpeted as a comprehensive review, and which some at least thought would extend to all payments to, for and on behalf of parliamentarians turned out to be something less:
    "The Committee’s terms of reference require that “in formulating advice and recommendations, the review should have regard to...entitlements provided at Parliament House”. The committee considered it was outside its terms of reference to review the general provision of services at Parliament House to senators and members.  Accordingly it considered only the limited number of entitlements funded by Finance but delivered by the chamber departments to senators and members.  These are postage for use at Parliament House, transfer of bulk papers to and from Parliament House to the electorate, the cost of government publications, the COMCAR shuttle, and photographic services provided in Parliament House"
    So the administration of payments or the cost of services for which the parliamentary departments not Finance are solely responsible weren't within the purview of the committee. As best I can work out the parliamentary departments are responsible for salaries and electorate allowances of parliamentarians (the committee recommended combining the two), additional salaries of parliamentary office holders, the superannuation entitlements of parliamentarians, resettlement allowance payments, and services and facilities to support parliamentarians in Parliament House including the cost of office accommodation, computing and other equipment, telephones, newspapers and stationery. (Corrections welcome from any experts out there.)

    Also outside the terms of reference were separate arrangements each department makes for ministers to pay for or provide:
    • the cost of official cars for the Minister and spouse;
    • departmental liaison staff;
    • additional stationery, office requisites, furniture and equipment in Ministers’ and Parliamentary Secretaries’ Parliament House Offices and their home State offices;
    • official hospitality; and
    • a range of other services.
    (House of Representatives Submission.)

    Transparency related issues

    The terms of reference required the committee to consider ways of “improving transparency in the use of taxpayer-funded entitlements”." For entitlements administered by Finance:
    The committee noted the announcement by the Special Minister of State (the minister) at his press conference of 8 September 2009 that as soon as practical, a complete reporting regime for all Finance expenditure on entitlements for or connected with senators and members or former parliamentarians would be developed.
    Reporting on Parliamentarians' Expenditure on Entitlements paid by the Department of Finance and Deregulation has been much improved since 2007. But the Minister said nothing about the recommendation that legislation provide the basis for this reporting regime which doesn't exist at present [11]. Nor anything about the recommendation that all senators and members be required to provide a link on their official parliamentary websites (at www.aph.gov.au) to their individual expenditure reports on the Finance website.

    Despite the committee's observation that services paid for by Parliament were outside the terms of reference, the committee noted that
    "the financial information provided by the chamber departments in their annual reports about the services provided to senators and members...offer high level information that does not attribute expenditure to individual senators and members.."
    It recommended [11] that "the presiding officers be encouraged to provide regular public reporting of expenditure on services provided to individual senators and members wherever possible." While Parliament itself needs to pick this up, the Government is best placed to lead. In view of the lack of initiative over the years, plenty of encouragement might be necessary. Not a word said publicly by anyone so far.

    The committee's Recommendation 3 that the "government enact a single piece of legislation to provide for the regulation of the tools of trade provided to senators and members at public expense" might be a step towards what the terms of reference described as a "new simplified framework.” Hopefully reporting will be integrated in a single comprehensive online site or linked searchable web pages. Otherwise the split responsibilities of Finance and the parliamentary departments that has clouded the picture to date will continue.

    If you weren't aware of how things are at present, this is how the Department of House of Representatives described the current system:
    "There are problems of transparency as not all expenditure is publicly reported in
    detail and it is difficult, if not impossible, to identify the total expenditure on
    parliamentarians entitlements and all the ‘entitlements’ that parliamentarians might have. This creates problems both for parliamentarians in accessing entitlements and the various agencies in administering the entitlements. Also there is not a broader transparency as some of the ‘entitlements’ are buried in obscure decision making and are not always clearly articulated;...there are issues of accountability as the myriad of entitlements and the number of agencies providing services create multiple lines of accountability and differing bases
    for providing accountability."
    Neither the committee nor the Minister mentioned the 1995 Australian Law Reform Commission recommendation that the parliamentary departments be brought within the Freedom of Information Act, just about ignored by everybody ever since. Tasmania is the only jurisdiction in Australia where the access to information law applies to the legislature. From memory the Commonwealth parliamentary departments are allocated $300 million plus each year for running the parliament and supporting members and senators in various ways.

    The accountability and transparency requirement eventually established for various elements of the system should involve fixed regular public reporting. Here and there throughout the report there are references that either would leave public reporting open to ministerial discretion or still involve annual reporting that is far removed from contemporary expectations. For example Recommendation 13:
    That the Special Minister of State, on the advice of the Department of Finance and Deregulation, table in the parliament:
    (i) the name of any sitting or former senator or member who has not substantially
    complied with a request for information about an alleged entitlement misuse
    within a reasonable time (for example, 28 days)
    (ii) the outcome of the investigation into the complaint, and
    (iii) regular reports setting out each senator’s and member’s compliance with the
    requirement for certification that entitlements have been accessed in accordance
    with the relevant legislation, including any justification given by the senator or
    member for non-compliance with the requirement.
     And Recommendation 28:
    That the government:
    (i) introduce the following conditions to the employment of close family members by senators and members, under the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act 1984:
    • senators and members must declare the employment of a close family member
    to their party leader and the Department of Finance and Deregulation at the
    time of the appointment, and
    the relationship and level of the position occupied by the close family member
    be included in the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act 1984 Annual Report.

    (ii) define a ‘close family member’ as a spouse, partner or child of the senator or
    member, or a child of the spouse or partner of the senator or member.
     
    I guess none of us should be holding our breath. As to state systems, the idea of reform is yet to be recognised

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