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Friday, January 13, 2017

Has the PM answered the call: An integrity agenda for 2017?

The Prime Minister in conjunction with the resignation of Health minister Sussan Ley has announced a commitment to further changes to the parliamentary entitlements system.

The changes go beyond the recommendations in the Conde report already accepted in principle and according to an earlier announcement to be acted upon in the first half of 2017.

The PM:
"Australians are entitled to expect that politicians spend taxpayers' money carefully, ensuring at all times that their work expenditure represents an efficient, effective and ethical use of public resources," he said. "We should be, as politicians, backbenchers and ministers, we should be as careful and as accountable with taxpayers' money as we possibly can be." Mr Turnbull also announced that a new body overseeing parliamentary expenses would be created.
"The Government believes that the work expenses of parliamentarians, including ministers, should be administered and overseen by an independent agency," he said.
"An independent parliamentary expenses authority will be a compliance, reporting and transparency body. It will monitor and adjudicate all claims by MPs, senators and ministers, ensuring that taxpayers' funds are spent appropriately and in compliance with the rules."

Describing transparency as key, Mr Turnbull said the new system would allow the public to view expenses in "as close to real time" as possible. "The system that manages entitlements will be modernised to allow monthly disclosure of parliamentarians' expenses in an accessible — that is to say, searchable — format," he said."[Currently] Most of the forms are filled in by the politicians by hand. It is all paper-based. The reports that you do find on the Department of Finance website are big PDF files. They are, you know, months out-of-date when they are posted."
Welcome news.

As per usual the devil is in the detail, yet to come.

A few thoughts:
  • Apart from Conde there are recommendations not acted upon in a number of auditor general reports stretching back to 2001-2002 and from the Belcher committee report in 2010. Hopefully they haven't been lost in time.
  • No mention so far of a Code of Conduct for Parliamentarians. Maybe the legislation the PM has in mind will go further than a code when it comes to responsibilities. Great. However the Coalition in 2010 wouldn't have a bar of it when John Faulkner tried to persuade Parliament to introduce a code.
  • "Parliamentarians entitlements"paid by Finance are only part of the picture. Some payments are made to or on behalf of members and senators by the Parliamentary departments, including support for and the cost of hospitality incurred by the Presiding officers. These payments currently are not  published. Parliament in 2013 excluded the parliamentary departments from the Freedom of Information Act.
  • Each department pays for the costs involved in supporting its minister, including official hospitality and who knows what else. These expenditures currently are not published.
  • The PM is right to state parliamentarians must be "as accountable with taxpayers' money as we possibly can be."Transparency and accountability should also extend to searchable information about declarations of interest (PM- they're in PDF files), contact with lobbyists ( PM-not published), and political donations (PM-can be published up to 18 months after the event.)
  • A parliamentary expenses authority should help keep things within reasonable limits. However a government serious about integrity would accept that a Federal anti-corruption body is also much needed.
As Peter Hartcher in making similar points in Fairfax Media recently said
"The cause of cleaning up Canberra is an inevitable one. The only question is who will best do it, and whether the energy will be channelled constructively to fix our democracy or destructively to make it weaker."
Trust and confidence 

Before the 2016 election campaign got underway the Roy Morgan Annual Survey revealed Federal Politicians are rated highly on Ethics and Honesty by 17% (up 4% in a year), putting them 23 of 30 professions included in the survey.

As scored on ABC Vote Watch the Prime Minister finished the election campaign in July with a personal trust rating of 4.5 out of 10, Bill Shorten 3.7 and Greens leader Di Natale 3.9.

According to the ANU Post Election 2016 Survey 74% agree "People in government look after themselves." Only 26% say "People in government can be trusted."

The PM knows all this. As he said in July last year:
"There is no doubt that there is a level of disillusionment with politics, with government, and with the major parties. Our own included. We note that. We respect it," Turnbull said. Now, we need to listen very carefully to the concerns of the Australian people expressed through this election. We need to look at how we will address those concerns that's what the Deputy Prime Minister and I have been discussing today. There are lessons to be learned from this election."
On the other hand we've heard good intentions before.

Tony Abbott before the 2013 election as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald:
Abbott's first priority if he wins the election will be to seek to rebuild Australians' confidence in government and restore civility to the national political discourse after three bruising years of minority government.
''The greatest deficit in our country at the moment is the trust deficit. Sure we have got a very serious budget deficit, but the trust deficit is even more serious. I would hope that, should we win the election, I would be able to so conduct myself and my team would be able to so conduct themselves that by the end of the first term people would have once more concluded that Australian government was competent and trustworthy
 We live in hope for 2017.

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