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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

MPs and opaque arrangements about expenditure of public money

The NSW Remuneration Tribunal last week issued the 2009 Annual Report and Determination of Additional Entitlements for Members of the Parliament of NSW. I'm all in favour of paying parliamentarians properly as recommended by an independent body but we badly need more sunshine about what goes here, despite the Tribunal's commendation of some recent initiatives to improve accountability.

For example how much of the electoral allowance (now ranging from $39950 to$82095 depending on the size of the electorate) each member spends, on what. NSW parliamentarians, like their Federal counterparts may pocket any unspent electoral allowance with the only issue one between the member and the Australian Taxation Office.The Determination tells us one submission received by the Tribunal suggested any unspent portion of the allowance should be returned to the Consolidated Fund rather than being retained by Members, but alas any such change, the Tribunal says, would be outside its powers and require legislative change.

Payments to members are subject to audit but no information about the expenditure of this or other allowances paid to individual members- Logistic Support Allocation, Electorate Charter Transport reimbursement, Committee Allowance, Electoral Mailout Allowance- or expenditure on other entitlements is publicly available from the Parliament. Not even the rule book that Parliamentary Joint Services uses for payments is on Parliament's website. But you can glean a little from the Tribunal Determination.

The Tribunal, at the request of the Presiding Officers, ruled out the use of the LSA to purchase promotional products for constituents such as "fridge magnets, notepads, shopping lists, key rings and pens." No moat cleaning revealed here, but what else is claimed only the Tax office will ever know.

Then there is the Sydney Allowance for members whose nominated place of residence is outside Sydney. It has been modestly increased (by $6) to $246 per night. The Determination tells us that everyone from a backbencher to a minister eligible for the allowance can choose to receive pay as you go payments or a lump sum, in the case of a minister and a few others, 180 nights worth ($44280). Members are to retain some proof they stayed overnight, but no details of expenditure are required. If they choose pay as you go they are entitled to additional payments over the limit on proof of expenditure. The Determination says the payments are meant to provide for long-term accommodation and I wouldn't want to condemn these worthy souls to life in a hotel room but the quid pro quo for nice round sums like $44000 should be publicly available details of where and on what the money goes.

Members of parliament also get money in the LSA to directly employ two or three people in their electoral office at public expense.The Determination even refers to payments to an approved relative. But nothing is publicly available about who is on each of their payrolls.

Is Tasmania unique where newly appointed parliamentary secretary Allison Ritchie resigned from that position and parliament last week after it was revealed she employed her mother, two sisters and her brother-in-law in her office, touching off debate there about the need for some rules about all this?

The legislative branch of government in NSW (which will spend over$100 million on Members Support this year) and everywhere else in the country drags the chain when it comes to open and transparent government. All are outside the scope of freedom of information laws and the parliamentarians themselves, with a few notable exceptions such as The NSW Greens' Lee Rhiannon show no interest in lifting the game on their own volition.

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