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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Slipper guilty verdict sends a powerful message but won't fix transparency failings

The guilty finding against former Speaker Peter Slipper for dishonesty in the use of his cabcharge should send a message to parliamentarians about the need for close attention to the rules. But as we know from the big fuss last year and earlier this year when instances of questionable use emerged, the rules can be a bit rubbery.

What we do know about use of entitlements largely comes from information published by the Department of Finance about the payments it administers. Last week, the department published details of expenditure in the second half of last year for travel, office fitouts, telecommunications and publications, and for travel, office facilities and office administration for eligible former Parliamentarians. (Here's the take in The Age.)

While this is welcome, and miles ahead of what goes at state level, the system overall is a far cry from the simple, timely, comprehensive transparency and accountability model needed for use of entitlements by parliamentarians and related integrity matters.

Half yearly publication on line of details of payments by Finance goes back to 2008. Reporting categories were expanded in 2009. Publication is nowhere near real time. The latest, July to December 2013 includes information about expenditure some of which was incurred over 12 months ago. Searching across members and senators and over different six month periods is complex, putting it mildly.The Belcher Committee four years ago noted that publication by Finance is voluntary/discretionary and recommended it be enshrined in legislation.Nothing has happened on that score since, or on a raft of other Belcher recommendations.

Details of use of entitlements paid by Finance before 2008 is not published. Possibly available under Freedom of Information. Probably wait at least 30 days and you may have a drawn out fight on your hands. With regard to some information, the member or senator may argue that it is personal and should not be disclosed as Prime Minister Gillard did unsuccessfully in 2012-13 concerning a repayment made in 2007. That was classic gaming the system by grasping at straws to delay disclosure of information that clearly was not exempt.

Payments to, or support provided to senators and members by the Parliamentary departments are not published. They can't be accessed under FOI because parliament exempted itself from the act in June last year. Depending on what you ask for the parliamentary departments may at their discretion provide information or documents. Payments include salaries and electorate allowances, additional salaries and support provided to parliamentary office holders, superannuation entitlements, resettlement allowance payments, and services and facilities to support parliamentarians in Parliament House including the cost of office accommodation, computing and other equipment, telephones, newspapers and stationery: 

Gifts and interests: Published by the House and Senate as a series of notifications by the member but no up to date list of current interests is published and the registers have no search function. 

Payments to or on behalf of ministers, assistant ministers and parliamentary secretaries by their departments,and the cost of support provided are not published. These include official cars for the Minister and spouse; departmental liaison staff; 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. Maybe available under FOI.

At the Federal level and in the states, apart from sensible, clear rules, we need fully transparent timely disclosure on a comprehensive single fully searchable site to follow the money paid to or on behalf of parliamentarians and ministers, and declared interests.

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