A long, long time ago in a galaxy that seems far, far away the Belcher review, completed in 2010, in a report released a year later recommended changes that led the then Labor government to nod. And in large part proceed to bury.
Not that Belcher had all the answers.
But in any event, four years after that committee was apponted, here we go again....
The Sydney Morning Herald editorial 'The rules on MPs' expense claims need to be rewritten' argues for clarifying the rules in the light of these expense claims - the job to be undertaken by someone other than the politicians.
Similar ambiguity arises regarding the Publication Allowance, apparently used to buy all sorts of interesting books in the case of Senator Brandis. As unearthed by Stephen Murray purchases included lives of the Popes, histories of Byzantium, Berlin and the Spanish Civil War, essays and writings by Orwell and Nietzsche, a collection of Isaiah Berlin’s letters, and a survey of the life and works of a Scottish colourist. The entitlement is for the costs of purchasing publications 'for purposes related to Parliamentary, electorate or official business' in a senator's case, subject to a yearly limit, currently around $5000.
But vague or ambiguous rules are just one element of the crazy quilt system.
Most payments to or on behalf of parliamentarians are made by Finance. The payments, that include travel and publications, simply require a signed certification that use is within the rules, and are published on-line every six months. A welcome acknowledgement of the importance of accountability and transparency. But publication occurs nowhere near real time, the latest for the period July-December 2012.
Digging deeper in Finance beyond what is published about use of entitlements is possible under the Freedom of Information Act. But good luck- in this recent case a still unnamed parliamentarian or, since the election former parliamentarian, designated 'AK' in the decision has managed to put off the evil day of disclosure of information about use of entitlements for a year and counting.
Other entitlements are paid by the relevant parliamentary department, the Department of House of Representatives or the Department of the Senate. In addition payments beyond the standard entitlement are made to or on behalf of office holders such as the Speaker of the House - Mr Slipper's coat and tails and a sizeable tucker bill provided a glimpse - and the President of the Senate. None of these payments are routinely published on line.
In a staggering stampede in the wrong direction the Parliament legislated in June to remove the parliamentary departments from the Freedom of Information Act. Ignoring the fact that this was an issue within the terms of reference of a statutory review of the operation of the FOI act completed in April. The report released in August recommended the parliamentary departments should be covered by the act in relation to documents of an administrative nature. No one on either side has said a word since.
Then on behalf of and in support of parliamentarians who are ministers additional payments are made by their departments. None of this information is published.
As Professor McMillan observed in AK:
Parliamentary entitlements are publicly funded, administered and scrutinised. There are strong public interest considerations that support transparency concerning these matters, and in particular, transparency concerning whether there has been compliance with government guidelines. Members of Parliament would reasonably expect public scrutiny of their use of Parliamentary entitlements occurring at any time during their Parliamentary career. Parliamentary entitlements are publicly funded, administered and scrutinised. There are strong public interest considerations that support transparency concerning these matters, and in particular, transparency concerning whether there has been compliance with government guidelines. Members of Parliament would reasonably expect public scrutiny of their use of Parliamentary entitlements occurring at any time during their Parliamentary career.Simplification and transparency along the lines of a single site monthly online publication of details of all payments and expenditure are what is needed. Putting it up on the internet and making it searchable by member along the lines of this Scottish Parliament system would be a step in the right direction.
In case you were wondering about related matters, commitments by the previous government to create the position of Integrity Commissioner came to nothing. Ditto a proposed Code of Conduct for parliamentarians.
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer, Steven Ciobo told Parliament when in Opposition that these sort of feel good things are a waste of time:
"The reason that there is still behaviour that people frown upon is that, fundamentally, it comes down to individual choice. Simply adding one more document to a pile of documents and simply having one additional public servant called an integrity commissioner is not going to change a thing. Anyone who believes that it will is delusional. It has not changed things in other jurisdictions. It is not as if in the United Kingdom or in the state of Queensland, where these types of vehicles exist, there is this great love of the parliament or towards parliamentarians. No. The same problems exist in those jurisdictions. This is nothing more than a feel-good exercise that will deliver no net tangible benefit whatsoever."Finally if Canberra disappoints, unfortunately there is no reassurance in the state parliaments where things are even worse.
Trust, where art thou?