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.
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"
Also outside the terms of reference were separate arrangements each department makes for ministers to pay for or provide:
(House of Representatives Submission.)• 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.
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 . 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  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 inNeither 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.
detail and it is difficult, if not impossible, to identify the total expenditure onparliamentarians 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 basesfor providing accountability."
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:And Recommendation 28:
(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.
That the government:I guess none of us should be holding our breath. As to state systems, the idea of reform is yet to be recognised
(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.