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Friday, June 08, 2012

I'm feeling sorry for Nicola Roxon

Well just a titch.

The Attorney General's re-entry into FOI-land with her fix the "anomaly" comment following publicity that the act covers the three parliamentary departments, coincided with the Sydney Morning Herald publishing information some days later about payments by the Department of House of Representatives to Speaker Peter Slipper. The comment by Ms Roxon's spokesman appears to have been made in the context of questions raised by the Australian FOI Editor Sean Parnell in a follow up concerning scope of the act, and seemingly was not related to the SMH Slipper story.  But the two have been conflated since in the media, public comments and cartoons (Moir for example) with the the Attorney General being pilloried for considering options to block access entirely to information about parliamentarians' expenditure.

This clearly isn't so, for reasons that follow. The timing was terrible and the attorney general's point of view (with respect etc) that this is an anomaly that needs fixing, is disappointing and unfortunate to say the least. As argued in "Say it isn't so" there are strong reasons why the parliamentary departments should be subject, give or take, to the same degree of transparency and accountability as other government agencies. Information about parliamentarians' entitlements is just part of a bigger accountability and transparency picture.

The main reason for the debate going off in this direction, apart from the timing issue, is that given the complex system of administration of entitlements and the half light thrown on the detail, it is easy to get things muddled. The system is still waiting for reform years on from recommendations that would nudge transparency in the right direction, although hardly as far as it needs to go. Special Minister of State Gary Gray and the various presiding officers of parliament (one of whom now of course is the same Mr Slipper) should carry the can on that. Reform in this area was a case study in slow motion a year ago. Now it's a masterclass.

To elaborate on entitlements and the transparency issues..

Entitlements of senators and members of the house are set out in over 213 pages in a handbook published by the Department of Finance and Deregulation- Senators and Members' Entitlements (pdf). Publication of something as comprehensive as this in a place that is easy to find is welcome and relatively new. As are the summaries for senators, members and ministers.

Most of the many and varied entitlements listed are administered by the Department of Finance and Deregulation. The department always has been and continues to be subject to the FOI act and no-one including the Attorney General is talking of changing that.

In fact a fair bit about payments the department makes including travel and family travel, car use and electorate office facilities and administrative costs is published online. Maybe not everything and not published near real time (the latest to June 2011 for example) but good by Australian standards-the states are shockers. The current "at a glance" version (scroll down that page) with a link to a detailed pdf for each senator and member is a big recent improvement.

Payments to The Hon Peter Slipper (pdf) as MP are part of this.

However that's only part of the story. Other entitlements are administered by the parliamentary departments. Until the surprise revelation last month by the Office of Australian Information Commissioner, those inside the system and the likes of me on the outside thought they were not subject to FOI. As recently as March anyone who asked was given short shrift -politely of course. Nothing is published on-line about these payments

These entitlements, according to the fine print of the handbook include salaries ($185,000 per year) and electorate allowances (between $32000 and $46000); additional salaries for parliamentary office holders; superannuation; resettlement allowance payable to some who retire or lose a seat after short tenure; and  services and facilities to support parliamentarians in Parliament House including office accommodation, computing and other equipment, telephones, newspapers and stationery, $1800 in postage for parliamentary or electorate purposes (from $40,000 administered by Finance), the cost of travel as a member of a delegation to conferences of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) and Inter- Parliamentary Union (IPU), and IT equipment and facilities and administration of IT in electorate offices.

And as the Sydney Morning Herald discovered when its FOI application was accepted, for office holders such as the Speaker and Deputy Speaker, the Department of House of Representatives pays for travel in that capacity, official entertaining, and in Mr Slipper's case at least for "clothing and uniforms." How all this works for other members and in the Senate  we don't know. If the attorney gets an amendment to the FOI act through to exempt the parliamentary departments, we probably won't either.

To round out the picture, while Finance pays additional entitlements for things that go with the job of minister, each minister's department pays other bills such as
the cost of official cars for the Minister and spouse
• departmental liaison staff assigned to the minister's office;
• additional stationery, office requisites, furniture and equipment in Ministers’ and   Parliamentary Secretaries’ Parliament House Offices and their home State offices;
• official hospitality; and
• "a range of other services", according to a submission to the Belcher review from the Department of House of Representatives.

All subject to FOI of course-raising a couple of interesting possibilities for FOI hounds.

In the mean time we look forward to hearing more about the attorney general's options to address the parliamentary departments' "anomaly".

And somewhere down the track, hopefully to a single payment system with on-line, up to date, searchable information about who does what with our money.

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