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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Media almost missed MPs privately sponsored travel

Most observers (including me) were surprised at developments last week that revealed it was commonplace for members of parliament to accept sponsored travel from private interests. The hot issue was the revelation that the Prime Minister when Opposition Spokesman on Foreign Affairs had accepted travel paid by Beijing AustChina for a number of trips to China and other destinations such as the US, UK and Sudan. Other frontbenchers now ministers such as the Treasurer and the Minister for Foreign Affairs also took advantage of this generosity.

The Prime Minister's response was that as the Opposition had no funds for such travel, there was nothing untoward in all this and details had been included at the time in his returns provided for the Parliament's register of interests.

It sounds like the media wasn't paying much attention to what was in these returns, and the paid trips only came to light when ran the story a couple of weeks ago.

At present the returns and the register are available for public inspection during business hours at Parliament House Canberra.

This isn't good enough. As the headline on the Canberra Times article mentioned above, this is everybody's business. We shouldn't be dependent on the media alone to scrutinise the interests declared by members of parliament. This sort of stuff should be published on the web as a matter of routine. Just as it is in Scotland where this website includes a link to the current return of interests by each member of the Scottish Parliament. Or as it is in NZ where the latest annual return for all members is on the web. Or as it is in the US Senate where a database of all approved travel paid for by private interests is available for all to see.

We shouldn't have to plan a trip to Canberra to see who has been 'generous' in helping our parliamentarians see the world. It's another initiative that should appeal to any government interested in improved standards of openness and transparency.

I haven't looked but presume we have the same blinkered approach to the publication of the declaration of interests of state and territory MPs.

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