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Thursday, October 18, 2012

Do it yourself publication of interests best for accuracy

Those cheers in August for the UTS/Fairfax project that put the Register of Interests in searchable form online toned down this week when Senator Faulkner during Department of the Senate Estimates referred to 10 errors in his entry. Senator Faulkner had drawn attention to this in the Senate on 12 September- some were relatively minor transcription errors, others just wrong:
"I can assure the Senate that I am not a member of the New South Wales Traders Foundation. I am, however, a member of the New South Wales Teachers Federation. I can assure the Senate—and this will come as a relief to the good parishioners of this church, I am sure—that I am not a member of the Clovercrest Baptist Church. Not only am I not a worshipper at the Clovercrest Baptist Church; I can also assure the Senate that I have not become a worshipper twice, which is the suggestion on this particular website. I can also assure the Senate that I have no investment properties, even though the website says I have. I can also inform the Senate that I do not receive a DFRDB pension, although the Herald website says I do. I can also inform the Senate that I do not have, nor have I ever had, a family trust which is bracketed as not applicable after July 2011; in my case it is not applicable before July 2011. Nor do I have life insurance, nor do I own a motor vehicle."
I don't know if other parliamentarians checked the accuracy of what was published- Clerk of the Senate Dr Laing told Senator Faulkner no one else had brought errors to attention.

Senator Faulkner suggested it might be better all round if the Senate itself made its database of pecuniary interests, currently hand written hard copy provided by senators, "a little more user-friendly and searchable". Dr Laing agreed the Committee of Senators' Interests should take a look but significant resources, in short supply, would need to be allocated. 

I'm sure that's true but it is 2012, after all. 

As Senator Rhiannon has raised on several occassions the Scottish parliament does much better and is an admirable model. As I wrote six years ago it took a major scandal there to propel expense disclosures into the 21st century.

Senator Faulkner's questions on Monday follow:

Senator FAULKNER: I wanted to ask about the senators pecuniary interests register and access to it. There was a recent series of articles in a Fairfax newspaper about what was described as politicians' perks, which used information from the Senate pecuniary interests register. I commence by asking you, Clerk, whether you are aware of those articles.
Dr Laing : I am aware, yes.
Senator FAULKNER: Are you aware of the personal explanation that I made in the Senate as a result of major inaccuracies about my own pecuniary interests which were in the Fairfax database?
Dr Laing : Indeed I am. I think you identified 10 errors in the Fairfax database that they had ostensibly based on the actual register of interests.
Senator FAULKNER: That is true. The information that was made public, in what I would describe—trying to be as fair about this as I can—as a searchable database that the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age produced, was gained, as I understand it, from publicly available information courtesy of the Department of the Senate and the Department of the House of Representatives. I appreciate you cannot comment on the Department of the House of Representatives but, in relation to the Department of the Senate, can you confirm that that was the source of the information?
Dr Laing : I expect so, because the registers in both houses are public documents. They are tabled from time to time, but in the meantime anybody is able to inspect the paper document—and that paper document is now online.
Senator FAULKNER: How long has it been online?
Dr Laing : From the commencement of the current Senate. This is a decision that goes back some time. The Committee of Senators' Interests, in a previous parliament, agreed that the register should be placed online to make it more accessible, because before then you could only see the register by physically inspecting it.
Senator FAULKNER: Do you think there should be any role or capacity for the Department of the Senate to check on material that is—I am trying to think of the correct verb here, not to verbal anyone—produced from a Senate database? Has any thought been given as to whether there might be a checking mechanism by the Senate itself?
Dr Laing : There has not been. I think it is really a question of resources. I am not sure, if you start with one set of checking, how far you would have to take it. Lots and lots of different applications use information sourced in Senate records. The fact that they cannot get it right—I do not know how we can monitor that other than by becoming aware of it through press reports, as happened in this case.
Senator FAULKNER: I certainly made my concerns about the inaccuracies public through a personal explanation. Are you aware of any other inaccuracies in the Sydney Morning Herald and Age database?
Dr Laing : None that have been brought to our attention.
Senator FAULKNER: So this would depend on a senator accessing the records in relation to themselves and ensuring that they were in fact accurate?
Dr Laing : That is correct. There is also the question of whether it is something for the department or whether it is not something in the first instance for the Committee of Senators' Interests, which monitors the register.
Senator FAULKNER: Certainly, but it is difficult for me to ask questions of the Committee of Senators' Interests. But, if you would care to comment on that matter, that is fine. I am not sure it is entirely appropriate for us to canvass the business of that committee in Senate estimates.
Dr Laing : That is right. I guess we are reliant on what the committee reports to the Senate by way of its activities.
Senator FAULKNER: So hence accuracy, as far as I can determine from asking these questions, is really dependent on those who themselves access the database or on individuals actually checking the entries in relation to themselves.
Dr Laing : That is my understanding, yes. I would be very happy to draw this transcript to the attention of the committee, if you think that is a good idea.
Senator FAULKNER: I think that would be helpful. I have to be honest here: this really only came to my attention because I met a few people in the street, effectively, who told me about my extensive financial resources and holdings, which came as an enormous surprise to me and a tremendous disappointment when I realised that it was only the views of the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age and there was actually no truth to it at all.
Dr Laing : Of course this is an inherent danger when you manipulate information. That is possibly one of the reasons why the Committee of Senators' Interests has always taken the view that it should publish what senators provide on their forms rather than having any system of transcribing or repackaging the information as some other systems of pecuniary interests disclosure do.
Senator FAULKNER: To be fair, I am sure the media outlet would say, 'There have been some transcription errors in this case.' They would also say that the advantage of the format that they have used is that it is a more easily searched database than that currently provided by the Senate. Let us put the transcription errors aside. Would you have a view on whether it is a resources issue or whether there is perhaps an opportunity in the future to make the Senate database in relation to pecuniary interests a little more user-friendly and searchable?
Dr Laing : I think that is something for the committee to have a look at, in conjunction with resources being available, yes.
Senator FAULKNER: The pecuniary interests declarations are effectively made in hard copy by senators, are they not?
Dr Laing : They are, yes.
Senator FAULKNER: Therefore, I assume any move to making a fully searchable database would clearly require significant resource allocation from the Department of the Senate.
Dr Laing : It would. It would also involve quite a significant change to the approach of the senators' interests committee to the register, as I outlined before.
Senator FAULKNER: Anyway, I would appreciate you passing that on to the committee—
Dr Laing : I shall do so.

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