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Friday, November 25, 2011

Putting in the slipper

 Don't laugh this is serious.
The task of ensuring appropriate standards of transparency and accountability apply to the Australian Parliament has been duck shoved for years but is now in the hands, in part at least, of Speaker Peter Slipper. The comments in response to an article in his home town daily about his new well remunerated job are instructive.

He last featured here a year ago when Bill Hoffman of the said Sunshine Coast Daily was trying without success to get information about an investigation into his use of entitlements. Tony Wright in the SMH today provides some high (?) points:
Last year he was forced to repay $14,000 for wrongful use of entitlements, including travel for his family. In 2003, the Finance Department demanded he repay $7785.67 for breaching the family travel entitlement. His phone bill alone for half of 2009 was $14,764, which was more than that of Kevin Rudd, who was prime minister at the time. His cabs cost $16,000 over just six months, plus $8600 on private-plate cars (it was later revealed his son was spending time driving the taxpayer-funded car). All up, in the last six months of 2009 - a period that caught the eye of the Finance Department - Slipper's upkeep as a humble backbencher, including the running of his electoral office, cost the public $640,562. Slipper's expenditure rolled along last year, when he attracted notice for spending $30,000 on family travel, and also when he took a 43-day overseas tour, which he explained was on parliamentary business."
(Update: More today in The Weekend Australian including reference to a police investigation.)

Parliamentary entitlements
A broad range of concerns regarding transparency and accountability for entitlements and expenditure for and on behalf of members and senators were canvassed at length here last year.

The Belcher committee recommendations addressed some of these issues. Two were acted upon, the rest shipped off to the Remuneration Tribunal and have not been heard of since.
Minister Gary Gray whose responsibilities include parliamentary integrity hasn't said a word on the subject since passing the parcel to the Remuneration Tribunal. Update: This recommendation from the committee has been kicking around somewhere out there unaddressed since the committee concluded its work in April 2010:
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.
A parliamentary integrity commissioner?
This prospect was agreed as part of the minority government agreements of last year. Nothing transpired in the year since until it rated a mention this week in a parliamentary committee report on a possible code of conduct for federal parliamentarians (something first raised in 1975!). If a code were to be adopted,
"the Committee would see value in the appointment of an independent Parliamentary Integrity Commissioner whose central role would be to receive and investigate complaints under the proposed code of conduct."
Oh, and 
"the Committee has not considered the wider possible role of a Parliamentary Integrity Commissioner in relation to the use of parliamentary entitlements."
After an inquiry lasting a year the Committee's recommendation regarding a code of conduct for parliamentarians? Release a discussion paper.

Concerns raised in 2000
The Auditor General first identified problems with accountability and transparency in the administration of of parliamentary entitlements 11 years ago. Another report two years ago pre dated Belcher and led to the establishment of the committee.

Improvements have been made since 2007 concerning disclosure of payments made by the Department of Finance and Deregulation. 

More transparency needed
Not so payments administered by parliament out of the $190 million allocated in the budget. As best I can work out the parliamentary departments are responsible for salaries and electorate allowances of parliamentarians, additional salaries of parliamentary office holders, superannuation entitlements, 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.

Among other recommendations the Belcher committee 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. and that all senators and members be required to provide a link on their official parliamentary websites (at to their individual expenditure reports on the Finance website.(They don't-example)

Whatever "encouragement" about regular reporting there has been has had no effect to date, although to my pleasant surprise the Register of Interests of members of the House of Representatives is on line these days. In all this no one has even mentioned anything world class like the one stop, on line, fully searchable system in place for accountability purposes in the Scottish Parliament.

Why the need for encouragement (why stop there?) was clear from the Department of the House of Representatives submission to the committee:
"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."
ALRC recommendation from 1995-96 in the bin
It is now 15 years since the Australian Law Reform Commission recommended that the parliamentary departments be subject to the Freedom of Information Act. No one said a word about that either then or more recently.

So (rhetorical question) what chance a new, vigorous, no nonsense, get to the bottom of all this approach to integrity on the parliamentary side of things from Speaker Slipper. Or anything more than pursed lips on the subject anytime soon from Minister Gray?

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