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Saturday, January 14, 2012

Prominent parliamentarians fail to certify entitements expenditure

They're busy people. So some of our politicians appear not to have had the time (add other plausible excuse) to attend to an important accountability obligation: to certify that expenditure on entitlements by the Department of Finance and Deregulation on their behalf was in accordance with applicable legislation. That seems to be the take away from publication with no fanfare or explanation, of these lists of members and senators, and former parliamentarians. under the heading "Parliamentarians' Certification."
(Update: The mainstream media picked up on this story on 17 January)
(Further Update 24 January.) 

For years Senate Estimates have prodded on this issue, the Auditor General has pointed to a sizeable gap in the accountability system, while the Belcher committee in 2010  recommended the publication of names of members and senators who did not certify legal entitlement use in accordance with prescribed terms. Presumably this is what has now been published by Finance. Around 100 names including  20 no longer in parliament have a blank against them. Some prominent front benchers feature (Tony Abbott, Simon Crean, Malcolm Turnbull, all three Bishops) but...House Speaker Peter Slipper gets a tick. 

Apparently certification can be signed “subject to qualification” but the lists don't categorise in this way. There are a lot more no responses than previously indicated: there were said to be about 30 in 2009.

Concerns about accountability and transparency shortcomings in the system have been kicking around since an audit report in 1990-91. The adequacy of certification was next canvassed in a 2001‐02 Audit Report. Despite some improvements, an Auditor General's report in 2009 -2010 again identified weaknesses including the dangers of reliance for accountability purposes on (self) certification, and the fact compliance by parliamentarians was voluntary not mandatory. The issues and how they could be addressed were mapped out in detail last year by Helen Williams in her Review of Administration of Entitlements which Finance is working its way through, including changes to the presentation of information in reports provided for certification. (See Implementation progress – Recommendations of the Review of Administration of Ministerial and Parliamentary Services.)

The publication of names gives practical but partial effect to Recommendation 13 in the Belcher report- like (i) and(ii) there are many others that still await a government response:
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.

So publication of the January-June 2011 list is a positive development, but it throws no light on which members and senators have consistently not complied with the certification requirement, in its various forms, for years. A Finance official told Senate Estimates in February 2009 that there were some reports that had not been certified going back to July 2007.

Senator Faulkner was the minister at the table during that hearing and obviously thought (p 99) publicly naming  "genuine recalcitrants" was necessary, in the interests of proper accountability and transparency:

Senator Faulkner—But obviously the naming and shaming, so to speak, is the next step. You would recall that Senator Murray in fact placed some questions on notice about this issue.
Senator MOORE (ALP QLD)—Absolutely.
Senator Faulkner—I certainly would not want to be a parliamentarian so named and that of itself, I think, would be a significant sanction. The department obviously will continue to make their best efforts to ensure that this important process works at its best. It may be that you or another senator placing a question on notice about genuine recalcitrants in this area will have a positive impact. I recall, as you would, that when these matters have been discussed in the committee there has been a genuine reluctance to do that. No-one wants to see people named and shamed. What people want to see is the management reports certified and provided to the department. That is the name of the game, and hopefully the sort of focus that this issue has received in this committee assists in that.
Senator MOORE—So that is also an anomaly in the process. I remember hearing Senator Murray ask these questions regularly, and he asked me to continue to do it. It seems that, if there is going to be any real integrity in the process, it needs to move to the next step, so we will see what happens. But thank you for providing your information.
Senator Faulkner—Transparency, as you will appreciate, is a key element in that.
Senator MOORE—Absolutely.
Senator Faulkner—The more transparency there is, I am sure the better and more appropriate use of entitlements there will be.
Senator MOORE—And the issue of accountability, Minister.
Senator Faulkner—Absolutely.
Senator MOORE—We are receiving those entitlements; we have an accountability to respond.
Senator Faulkner—And the link between the two is very strong.
.........................................

In January 2012, finally a step in the right direction despite the fact Finance and Minister Gray now in Senator Faulkner's portfolio have made nothing of this in public at least.

A sign off that expenditure has been incurred for legal use of entitlements should be mandatory not voluntary for parliamentarians.

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