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Monday, August 13, 2012

Trust us, we're parliamentarians

Federal parliamentarians have learnt or are in the process of learning to live with the scrutiny that comes with public access to information about the use of entitlements, with speaker Peter Slipper the most notable example. But their state parliamentary colleagues are a different matter. Generally they receive or spend money or have money spent on their behalf under opaque arrangements that show no sign of 21st century standards of accountability and transparency.  The administration of all our parliaments should be subject to the same standards as any other government agency. That is, subject to freedom of information law, but these days with information about use of entitlements published in a timely fashion on the internet.

Victoria, Queensland and NSW provide examples of current impenetrable practices. Payments to parliamentarians in these jurisdictions are made by parliamentary departments, unlike Canberra where most but not all are the responsibility of an executive government agency subject to the FOI act, the Department of Finance and Deregulation (and the act for the present at least applies to the parliamentary departments).

In Victoria the administrative departments of the parliament established under the Parliamentary Administration Act would appear not to be agencies subject to the FOI act. In Queensland "the parliamentary service established by the Parliamentary Service Act 1988" is specifically listed among entities not subject to the RTI act (Schedule 2). In NSW the legislative basis for the NSW departments of assembly, council and parliamentary services is obscure but they don't appear to be agencies or public authorities. In 2009 the then presiding officers rejected suggestions in an ombudsman's report that the parliament should be covered by the new FOI act. The GIPA act  lists the Legislative Council, the Legislative Assembly, the office of a member of the council or assembly or the President or Speaker as bodies that are not public authorities or public offices for the purposes of  the act.)

This is the picture as best I can make out. Those newshounds at Fairfax and News publications in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney and other watchdogs could do us a service and push this along. Very high or high ratings for honesty and ethics for Federal and state members of parliament in the Roy Morgan Survey of Professionals May 2012: a tie at 10%. Just ahead of the last three of 30 categories, real estate agents, advertising people and used car salesmen.

In Victoria the Parliament was allocated a total of around $120 million for administrative purposes in this year's budget. The Department of Parliamentary Services is responsible for support services and payments to parliamentarians but there is no mention of payments to or costs incurred by parliamentarians in the 2010-2011 Annual Report (pdf). The annual reports of the department of legislative assembly ($26 million) and legislative council ($7.5 million) include amounts allocated for salaries and allowances, but provide no detail and no list of payments made to individual members. Legislative Assembly Annual Report 2010-11 
Legislative Council Annual Report 2010-11.
(Update: Apart from salaries all members apparently receive a residential allowance, a traveling allowance, an electorate allowance and an electorate office allowance, and in the case of some senior office holders, an expense allowance.)

Bruce Atkinson The Age
I started asking questions about this in June. Two emails, the first on 16 June, asked the president of the upper house Bruce Atkinson and the speaker of the house Ken Smith about access to information about payments. Neither scored an acknowledgement or response. Indelicately, I asked if the request to the Ombudsman to investigate allegations about the Member for Frankston Geoff Shaw might have prompted consideration of the issue of greater transparency. Your guess is as good as mine.

The Parliamentary Service is the Queensland counterpart. The annual report states it is responsible for payment of salaries and allowances to Members of Parliament, electorate offices and staffing and support services provided to Members at Parliament House. The accounts include $46 million spent in 2010-2011 on "Members Salaries, Entitlements and Electorate Office Services." No other details. As to payments to individuals, zilch. Queensland Parliamentary Service – Annual Report 2010-11

In NSW global amounts paid to each member for various entitlements are published but buried away in appendices to the annual reports of the Department of the Legislative Assembly 2010-2011 pdf-Appendix G) and Legislative Council (Annual Report 2010/2011 pdf-Appendix I). A step ahead of Victoria and Queensland, but no detail for any of the expenditures and in this form, up to 12 months after the event.

Just in passing of course former NSW ALP member Karyn Paluzzano is awaiting sentencing after being found guilty of falsely claiming parliamentary sitting-day relief payments and then lying to an Independent Commission Against Corruption. Another former ALP member Angela d'Amore lost a judicial review of a finding of corruption against her by the Independent Commission Against Corruption that she engaged in corrupt conduct, rorting $4500 in staff entitlements.

And the Independent Commission Against Corruption in its 2009 Report (Chapter 3 page 20) on Ms  Paluzanno and members of her staff,  included a recommendation that the Clerk of the Legislative Assembly consider whether a recently embraced audit program "has the capacity to detect corrupt conduct and, if not develop, implement and regularly evaluate a corruption prevention strategy that includes:
• a comprehensive risk assessment of the corruption risks in relation to the use of Members’ allowances and entitlements
• a corruption risk management plan describing the corruption risks identified and the strategies Parliament will adopt to manage each of these risks
• measures capable of detecting corrupt conduct and non-compliance by Members and electorate office staff."
The Commission advocates generally that corruption risk is best managed by identifying and managing in a comprehensive manner those organisational features that allow corruption to occur and possibly go unnoticed or unreported.

 Dare I say, proper accountability, and appropriate transparency must be an essential part of any such plan.

This was the only reference to the audit two years later in the Annual Report for 2010-2011:
The Members’ Entitlements Audit Plan commenced in 2009/10 and will continue in 2011/12 covering both the 54th and 55th Parliament Members...
You've got to love 'em.


  1. Anonymous10:07 am

    I will try to love 'em. :) Recently tried to get the overspend figures associated with a certain cost code and was told the earlier 2007 figures were not obtainable as would unnecessarily divert resources. This was due to an update to the financial IT system in that department, which apparently would cause great workloads and exhaustive searches to retrieve. I am at a loss as to why this would be the case in the 21st Century; or that a paper file, archive file would not exist that could easily be photocopied. It is a one page document of costs/expenses vs actual budget. I cannot imagine a more 'public interest' disclosure than expenditure. In a democracy, financial details ought to be published routinely on government websites. Roll on open government.

  2. Sounds fishy to me. Challenge.

  3. Anonymous9:41 am

    Decision letter stated there was not sufficient 'public interest' to warrant such a diversion of resources. Apparently accessing the old version of Finance One is not an easy task. And on my tip to look at a paper file, it was stated they were sure a paper file copy might exist but they did not know within which file it might lie and a search of records would divert resources. The request deals with expenditure vs actual budget allocated and the subsequent overspend in that financial year. I managed to get later years. Department has conducted an internal review with no success. I am guessing a self-interested intervention on this decisions, but I have no proof, I fail to see what else would produce this result clearly against FOI obligations. Can you imagine if the Audit Office did a retrospective audit and was told 'sorry we cannot access the old files because of new technology...oh and we cannot think which paper record might include that document'. Does not say much for integrity of records management even if claims are valid.

    OAIC has it now but the backlogs means some waiting time involved - 12 weeks at last notification but now longer.