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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Parliamentarians entitlements-calls for "root and branch review" take us back to the future

Lots of talk about a"root and branch" review of parliamentarians' entitlements, including on Q&A last night with former Deputy PM Tim Fisher defining the problem as lack of clarity about what is and isn't within entitlement. 

That's just one of many problems but as the heat hurts and levels of trust and confidence go through the floor politicians can blame themselves and their leaders for not sorting this out years ago.

The history of the last such review is set out in the Auditor General's Report on travel entitlements (Chapter 2) tabled in June as Parliament rose for the winter break. 

It's a long sad story of delay and failure by successive governments and parliaments to step up to the plate on recommended reforms to the system.

Pass the parce
Four years ago I described it as a case study in slow motion and it hasn't picked up speed since.

The Auditor General raised a red flag about the system as long ago as 2001-02. There were more red flags in a report in 2009 that led/forced the government in September that year to commission you guessed it, a "root and branch review." 

The resulting Belcher Inquiry and Report was the first comprehensive review of federal parliamentary entitlements in over 35 years.

The Labor government received the report in April 2010, held it for a year before releasing it, then acted on two of the 37 recommendations with minister Gary Gray sending the rest off to the Remuneration Tribunal. 

Fundamental reform ignored
Five years on according to the Auditor General something, not always what was recommended, has been done with regard to 17 of the 39 recommendations. But 
"there has been no formal government response to the recommendations of the CROPE (Belcher) report, or subsequent Remuneration Tribunal report, in relation to fundamental reform of the legislative and administrative framework underpinning the provision of Parliamentarians’ ‘tools of trade’." 
That applies to the Parliamentary Entitlements Amendment Bill 2014 , a bill in the Senate since October 2014 and the subject of this Senate Committee report. The Auditor General said  
"the measures included in the Bill do not address the overarching structural inadequacies of the existing non‐remuneration entitlements framework that have been consistently highlighted in independent reviews and commentary."
Proposals in the 2015–16 Budget for further amendment to existing entitlements, yet to be further advanced, don't do it either. The Auditor General:
"The Budget proposals in themselves do not address the need for the more extensive reform that has been highlighted by earlier independent reviews. In the absence of such reform, Parliamentarians’ entitlements will continue to be provided through a patchwork framework that has been the subject of only limited enhancements. As a consequence, there will continue to be:
  • a lack of transparency as to the particular purposes for which entitlements have been accessed, which can be expected to give rise to continued concerns that the framework is providing greater latitude to Parliamentarians in their use of public money than might be expected in the public interest; and
  • a heightened risk of Parliamentarians being criticised for the judgements they individually make in relation to whether a particular use of publically funded resources was within the terms of the relevant entitlement and represented an efficient, effective, economical and ethical use of public resources."
Public service advice
It's not for want of trying by the public servants involved.

The Auditor General reports the Department of Finance has run the issue up to incumbent special ministers of state to no avail, first in September 2011 and most recently in November 2013 in briefs that presented a proposed legislative framework reflecting the Belcher committee's recommendations. Ministers didn't buy in. 

Other weaknesses and gaps
Apart from the absence of "a consistent, simple and transparent framework for providing Parliamentarians with the ‘tools of trade’ required to undertake their respective duties"
other weaknesses and gaps in the system include:
  • none of the Belcher "recommended additional measures to further enhance the public disclosure of entitlements expenditure have been implemented." "A November 2013 departmental proposal to the (Special Minister of State Ronaldson) that there would be merit in providing more timely, and potentially more detailed, public reporting on entitlements expenditure has also not been actioned." (Katherine Murphy in The Guardian on why its time to get serious about disclosure for political donations, lobbying activity and the use of parliamentary entitlements:"Corporations are required to operate in a system of continuous disclosure. So should politics." Amen to that.)
  • payments by the parliamentary departments, not Finance, to for or on behalf of senators and members are not published and parliamentarians voted to exclude the parliamentary departments from the FOI act (My gripe, not Belcher or the AG);
  • there is no link between public declarations of interests and travel and other use of entitlements, and no single site searchable database of all we should know about our parliamentarians (ditto);
  • the expenditure by departments in support of members of parliament who are ministers is not published (ditto);
  • certification of all usage in a given six month period that expenditure was in accordance with the entitlement "remains a voluntary process with variable levels of adherence by Parliamentarians." The Auditor General doesn't name two parliamentarians who haven't certified expenditure for any of the five six month periods since the requirement was introduced. (The published lists reveal a blank for every period against the names Senator Stephen Conroy and Senator Bob Katter.)
  • the scope of eligible entitlements and what would and would not be publicly funded is yet to be clarified; 
  • definitive advice isn't available about the terms "parliamentary, electorate and official business" that are are used as eligibility criteria for over 50 entitlements. Finance does provide some advice when sought by parliamentarians and staff. However ASKMAPS, an advisory service commenced operations in August 2011. According to the Auditor General, as a result of low uptake Finance decided to cease the service in October 2012 as a savings measure.
  • some entitlements including travel are subject to ‘conventions' that have no legal basis for example publicly funded travel by incumbents during election campaigns up to the point (usually at the end of the campaign) of the leader's policy launch.

Bronwyn Bishop's charter charges are now being investigated by the Department of Finance in accordance with the Minchin Protocol. The Protocol remains as drafted in 1998. 

The Auditor General notes it "has been long recognised that the document itself would benefit from amendment to ensure its terms transparently reflect actual practice in dealing with allegations of entitlements misuse, which is not currently the case; and enhance its efficacy as an accountability governance document."

What odds an announcement soon of another root and branch review?


  1. Anonymous4:35 pm

    Everybody knows that announcing a review is all that needed to make a problem disappear for long enough until it is somebody else's problem.

  2. Anonymous,
    Until the underlying problems are fixed we can expect ongoing questionable and sometimes dishonest calls on the public purse.