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Friday, July 17, 2015

Parliamentarians perks- accountability framework full of holes

Adam Gartrell in Fairfax Media has shown what can result from digging into the report on expenditure against entitlements by Parliamentarians, former Parliamentarians and surviving spouses or de facto partners of former Parliamentarians published by the Department of Finance. 

The bald disclosure by Finance that Speaker Bronwyn Bishop spent $5227 for a chartered helicopter flight from Melbourne to Geelong (well, and return) turned into a journalists delight when Gartrell discovered the expenditure was to attend a Liberal party function. It's since become a cartoonists bonanza and worse for Ms Bishop.

How many other scandalous uses of taxpayers money are hidden away in the small print of "Official Business" we won't know until Gartrell and others do the digging.

But as to the big picture: 

Nothing close to real time disclosure
Information about use of entitlements administered by Finance is published every six months. 

The current spate of interest in Ms Bishop, Opposition MP Ken O'Dowd claimed public money to attend rugby and a few others relies on the latest report, for the period 1 July 2014-31 December 2014. Some of the expenditure was incurred a year before recent publication. 

The information is published at the government's discretion and is not underpinned by legislation. 

There is no link between the official parliamentary websites of members and senators (at and details of their entitlement expenditures published by Finance.

No comprehensive reporting 
Finance reports on domestic travel, car costs, overseas travel, Travelling Allowance, office facilities costs, office administrative costs and family travel and car transport costs as advised by other Departments in respect of Ministers, Parliamentary Secretaries, the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House.
However other entitlements of members and senators are paid by the relevant parliamentary department, the Department of House of Representatives or the Department of the Senate. These include salaries and electorate allowances, additional salaries and support provided to parliamentary office holders, superannuation entitlements, resettlement allowance payments, and services and facilities to support parliamentarians in Parliament House including the cost of office accommodation, computing and other equipment, telephones, newspapers and stationery. 

None of these payments are published and can't be accessed under FOI because parliament exempted itself from the act in June 2013.

Nor are the costs of departmental support for Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries including for official hospitality.

Reform ignored 
Australian National Audit Office Report: Administration of Travel Entitlements Provided to Parliamentarians 2015 (emphasis added)
"The conduct of an independent ‘root and branch’ review of Parliamentarians’ entitlements following the completion of ANAO’s 2009–10 audit report gave some cause for optimism that improvements would be made to the entitlements framework and its administration. However, fundamental weaknesses in the framework remain. Principally, this is because independent recommendations for substantive legislative and administrative reform developed to simplify current arrangements and safeguard the interests of the Commonwealth and Parliamentarians, or alternative measures to address recognised fundamental issues with the framework, have not been actioned. As a result, the framework under which Parliamentarians’ non-remuneration entitlements are provided has continued to be complex and opaque, with travel entitlements recognised as representing one of the areas most affected by those factors.

Public interest in disclosure
Australian Information Commissioner Professor McMillan in AK
 where an unnamed member battled to prevent disclosure of information by Finance and Deregulation about use of entitlements:
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.
Things in the states are worse
Virtually nothing is published other than in annual reports.
Just recently the NSW Auditor-General found that 22 MPs did not complete an annual Declaration stating that benefits accrued from loyalty/incentive schemes, as a consequence of using their allowance and entitlements, were used only for Parliamentary duties and not for private purposes. None were named.

Follow the Scots:  
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.

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