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Tuesday, June 05, 2012

State parliaments far less transparent than Canberra

With a fair degree of outrage running about any plan to re-establish an exemption for the parliamentary departments from the Commonwealth Freedom of Information Act (see letters in the SMH today, copied below), folks out there should save some for our state leaders where the situation is even more opaque.

In most, the state parliament is its own paymaster with the fine detail of what administrators do with public money and payments to parliamentarians hidden behind a specific exemption from the FOI/Right to Information Act. 

Much of what our Federal parliamentarians receive is paid out by the Department of Finance and Deregulation, well and truly subject to FOI, with much published online these days.The current kerfuffle in Canberra is about separate payments made by the parliament itself. 

At state level it's a far darker story.

Tasmania's RTI act extends to information held by the parliament regarding matters of an administrative nature, but I don't know what is published there about payments to  parliamentarians. Elsewhere it's no go.

NSW is typical-both houses are specifically excluded from the RTI act (Schedule 1 Clause 2(3)). 

In round figures the NSW parliament is allocated $160 million a year. Exactly what is spent on and for parliamentarians isn't clear. The only published information for payments are global figures for categories of annual sums paid to each member buried away in appendices to the annual reports, the latest here at page 80 for the Department of the Legislative Assembly 2010-2011 pdf-Appendix G) and page 133 for the Legislative Council (Annual Report 2010/2011 pdf-Appendix 2).
When the issue of the exemption was raised in the context of FOI reform in NSW it fell to the ground as the then presiding officers ran up arguments that don't hold water including that sufficient public scrutiny comes from publication of these same annual reports.

In 2010 after an allowance scandal, ICAC recommended the NSW Parliament look at its anti-corruption measures regarding payments to parliamentarians. ICAC's general approach to anti-corruption highlights, ahem, the need for proper accountability, and appropriate transparency.

The South Australian Parliament publishes online an annual report on members interests and an annual report on travel by individual members, although not even close to real time.

None of this is good enough. Reserve some of that outrage for your state parliament. Give your state MP's office a chance to explain-I'm all ears.

Today's SMH letters follow.

MPs' snouts must be exposed

I was completely shocked by Nicola Roxon's attitude to FOI (''Slipper's expenses out of the bag but rest likely to stay secret'', June 4). Perhaps it's time we considered privatising our federal government. Private companies at least have an obligation to be accountable to their shareholders. We should be appalled by this secretive approach - this is public money, after all. Politicians, as public servants, should be ashamed. I applaud the Herald for raising this issue.

Marian Attfield Mount Colah

Just how arrogant is this government? How dare Nicola Roxon consider making information on public money spent by politicians unavailable under FOI. Such a move suggests the government is embarrassed about providing this information - understandable given Mr Slipper's recent spending record. The public provides the money these politicians feel they can spend so freely, so the public has every right to know how it is spent and by whom.

Kip Morel Roseville

Nicola Roxon, via her spokeswoman, claims, ''It has been long-accepted practice that the parliamentary departments are exempt from FOI.'' Long-accepted by whom?

The antiseptic of sunlight that is FOI is the only policy, beyond a return to the stocks, that has any hope of protecting the public.

With some politicians the use of stocks would be a far more satisfying option.

Martin Bell Balgowlah

Congratulations on the success of the Herald's FOI request to Parliament. I don't imagine that we will see too many claims for ''cleaning the moat'' but I would be very interested to see the expenses of all parliamentarians and particularly of the very creative Member for Dobell.

Alexander Haege Tamarama

It will be a pity if Nicola Roxon succeeds in exempting parliamentary departments from the Freedom of Information Act as it tells us so much about the character of our politicians. Who would have thought that the much maligned Peter Slipper was thoughtful enough to spend nearly $1000 on Christmas cards?
John Byrne Randwick.

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