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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Action on entitlements by Labor, but Howard Government looked the other way

Senator Eric Abetz, Liberal Tasmania, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate. Shadow Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research.

Plenty of media coverage today so I won't repeat the gory details of the parliamentarians' entitlements scheme and the way it has "worked" as revealed in the Auditor Generals' report released yesterday. In light of an email exchange with my local member, Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull in May about the lack of transparency, and his staunch defence of the adequacy of the system, I'll ask if he has anything more to say on the subject.

What doesn't get mentioned much in the media is that the Auditor General reported twice years ago about the same overly complex, poorly administered scheme, and the need to fix it, recommending a comprehensive review of the framework "against approaches adopted in similar jurisdictions as a basis for developing suitable proposals to improve flexibility, transparency and accountability... ." What happened? (Report 52)
"Various changes have since been made to some individual entitlements, sometimes to provide additional benefits (including to legitimise existing uses of entitlements) or to address particular instances of misuse. In addition, Finance has undertaken work seeking to strengthen or make clear the basis for entitlements. However, no fundamental changes were made by government to the framework in response to either the 2001‐02 Audit Report or subsequent 2003‐04 Audit Report, which made similar observations in relation to the framework governing the administration of Parliamentarians’ entitlements."
Then this from from the Department of Finance response to the draft report (pages 292-293) as a bit of an explanation for "confusion" regarding printing etitlements, of which the Department was unaware for five years:
"Finance’s guidance to Parliamentarians on, and its administration of, the Printing Entitlement was based on the document known as the ‘31 statements’. The document was developed during 2004 by the then Special Minister of State who sought considered advice from Finance on its contents. In preparing its advice to the then Minister, Finance consulted with the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and with the Australian Government Solicitor. The content of the document, as subsequently agreed between the then Special Minister of State and Finance, was incorporated into advice provided to Senators and Members on entitlements use during an election campaign.

It was only on 22 July 2009 that Finance became aware that another reference point, known as the ‘42 questions and answers’ document, was apparently being relied upon by Parliamentarians in guiding their use of entitlements. This document had been provided to Finance by the office of the then Special Minister of State in 2003 as an internal working paper with no particular status. The document was never endorsed by Finance, nor was it incorporated into advice provided by Finance to Senators and Members on entitlement use during an election campaign. However, if the components of the 42 Questions and Answers document were read separately by Parliamentarians and relied upon, as we now understand has occurred, then the number of printed items that would fall outside of this guidance would represent a very small proportion of the items sampled by the ANAO."
The Special Minister of State in Howard governments from 2001 to 2006 was Senator Eric Abetz, who enjoyed a rare moment of fame (?) for his involvement, with Mr Turnbull, in the Godwin Gretch affair earlier this year, the subject of a previous Auditor General report.
Update: in debate in the Senate yesterday, Senator Ronaldson for the Opposition supported the recommendations but made no mention of the previous missed opportunities to fix the system.

Thanks to Open Australia for the Hansard link.

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