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Sunday, October 13, 2013

Parliamentarians entitlements-travel just part of the bigger picture

Reports about newsworthy parliamentarians' entitlement claims and of repayments for some questionable ones have been mostly sourced from details published on the internet by the Department of Finance since 2009. Some of the longer pieces for example Tom Allard in the SMH are starting to raise bigger picture issues about complexity and the need for a fair, simplified fully transparent system.

However the Prime Minister in Brunei said that as far as travel entitlements are concerned
I'm not proposing to change the system. If people want to make suggestions, they’re welcome to make suggestions, but I’m not proposing to change the system.If people want to make suggestions, they’re welcome to make suggestions, but I’m not proposing to change the system.
FactCheck confirms the rules are not clear.

More broadly the Belcher committee made plenty of other suggestions, recommendations in fact, for change in 2010 that have been ignored so far and others have been floated since.

Publication of the details of payment of entitlements by Finance for example is voluntary.The Committee recommended it should be underpinned by legislation. 

Other recommendations about governance arrangements were ignored as well.
 
The review didn't even look at the general provision of services at Parliament House to senators and members but still referred to the opaque nature of the system. Its recommendation on that score should be ratcheted up into a mandatory publishing requirement when Parliament gets back to accepting FOI coverage: 

That the presiding officers be encouraged to publish on a regular basis details of expenditure on services and facilities provided to individual senators and members by the chamber departments.
 On another front, those seeking access to information about use of entitlements by a senator or member in the pre-2009 period must run the freedom of Information gauntlet, with all the delays and obstacles that can arise when either the agency or a third party wants to argue the toss or at least slow things down.This shouldn't be necessary.

With regard to some information at least Finance in processing the application consults the person concerned on the basis that the senator or member may contend the disclosure is of personal information, would be unreasonable and contrary to the public interest.

Case in point: the decision by Australian Information Commissioner Professor McMillan in 'AK' v Department of Finance and Deregulation [2013] AICmr 64. An unnamed member of parliament argued unsuccessfully against disclosure on this basis of a document that revealed in 2007 she had repaid $4200 for use of the taxpayer provided private plated car in 2006 by her partner in driving throughout Victoria as a salesman of hair products. The car is provided for Parliamentary, electorate or official business, family travel and private purposes, but not for commercial purposes

It subsequently emerged the parties were Ms Julia Gillard MP and Tim Mathieson.

Hedley Thomas of The Australian was onto this in October 2012 when he made the application.The documents that revealed the repayment were released to him in September 2013.

(Addendum: Finance posted the released documents on its Disclosure Log under the heading 'Documents relating to government funded vehicle'- in separate pdf files that would take a fair bit of digging to find or interrogate. Gillard's name is mentioned as the MP.)

This sounds like one of those classic 'wait out' and 'grind down' the applicant stories. In this case Ms Gillard, Prime Minister at the time, was a third party relying on a wing and a prayer, as Professoir McMillan made clear in rejecting the exemption claim. Delay in the facts coming to light may have been the main objective.

On taking office as Prime Minister, Ms Gillard famously proclaimed let the sun shine in.
Given the message sent by the PM as AK was it any wonder those close to the grindstone might have taken the proclamation with a grain of salt?

Of course don't even think about digging deep at Parliament House. Not only are details of payments not published, Parliament exempted itself from the FOI act.

Red hot if you ask me.

Reform is needed and badly.

Over to Prime Minister Abbott, presumably still intending to address the trust deficit.

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