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Saturday, November 09, 2013

Parliamentary entitlement reform way short of the mark

The announcement today that the Abbott government accepts changes to the system of parliamentary entitlements are necessary is welcome, warrants a few headlines and will enable ministers to parry questions when parliament resumes next week. Former ALP special ministers of state Ludwig and Gray who sat on reform of the system for years presumably shouldn't raise the issue even if given the chance.

But the measures announced in this Media Release and Attachment issued by Special Minister of State Ronaldson fall way short of what is needed. And the policy process - dusting off, then cherry-picking from a report that has been sitting around largely unnoticed for the last three years, with an added twist here and there - is fail grade by any measure.

The changes mainly concern use of travel entitlements. No surprise following the mainstream media's belated discovery of information published since 2008 on the Department of Finance website.

But they won't deliver a comprehensive, easily accessible, timely, searchable method for disclosure of what taxpayers' money is paid to, for or on behalf of parliamentarians and how that money is used as they go about their business. 

Forget the petty cash details, much more is involved,

Quite apart from the rules regarding entitlements that need tightening, and in this respect the government is at least moving in the right direction, there is no mention of any change to the timeliness of information published by Finance regarding payments it makes. These details are put on the web months after the event, and nowhere close to real time. The latest published are for the six months to December 2012.

Ditto, regarding the separate payments made to for or on behalf of parliamentarians by the Department of the House of Representatives, Department of Senate and Department of Parliamentary Services. They aren't published at all.  

No mention either of any intention to remedy the hole in the accountability system that parliament created when it rushed through earlier in the year legislation to exempt the parliamentary departments from the Freedom of Information Act  The departments are collectively allocated around $170 million each year.

Then there are the payments made on behalf of ministers by their departments, for transport and hospitality for example. None of this information is published.

Minister Ronaldson made no mention of what is really needed on the transparency front - full transparency in the form of a single website that brings together information for each parliamentarian regarding all payments from whatever source.Together with other disclosables such as each member's interests as recorded in the mandatory register of interests. 

As to process, Policy 101 might suggest  a better result on a hot topic such as this would involve a process encompassing an acknowledgment that change is warranted, throwing out ideas on what might be done to achieve agreed public purposes, and inviting inputs on how we might set new high standards and define the system that might deliver them.

Neither the Coalition government nor the ALP in government or opposition seem much interested in process or reform, of this kind.

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