The Australian media have lapped up the recent scandal over UK parliamentarians misusing their expense accounts. Questionable (but mostly within the rules) expenditure of allowances in the UK came to light through a leak, after a four year battle for details under the Freedom of Information Act. As the UK Telegraph wrote: "Now we know why they worried."
At least in the UK, members of the public now know what their politicians are really up to and can make up their own minds about how it will sway their vote. According to polls, all three major parties have taken a battering.
In Australia, however, payments to MPs at federal, state and territory level attract limited attention from the media. This is despite the fact that transparency and accountability arrangements seem to range from opaque to murky.
Take Canberra, for example, where parliamentarians have from the beginning of May been recipients of the first increase in electoral allowance for years. This is courtesy of a recommendation from the Remuneration Tribunal and despite a motion, supported only by the Greens and Senators Fielding and Xenophon, to disallow the increase.
The allowance — a minimum of $32,000, and more for certain electorates and senators — is paid to reimburse "for costs necessarily incurred in providing services to constituents". The allowance is not subject to income tax if used for electorate expenses. Where the money goes — whether it be into the local soccer club chook raffle or into the pocket of the parliamentarian — is left entirely as a matter between the member and the tax office. There is no requirement to report on expenditure and no publicly available information about how much went to which worthy cause, including possibly the MP’s retirement fund.
Then there is the postal allowance, the printing (which was reeled in by Labor from $150,000 per year with a rollover to produce an election-year treasure chest under Howard, to $100,000 per year and no rollover) and communication allowances. There is no publicly available information about how any of this money is spent and to whom it is paid.
The parliamentary departments that pay these entitlements are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. There is thus limited transparency and accountability for the legislature concerning the $318 million it has available to spend in the next 12 months, compared to that which applies to other agencies that form part of the Executive branch of government.
All this is in addition to money allocated to the Department of Finance and Deregulation — which is subject to the Freedom of Information Act — to provide current parliamentarians and their staff, and former senators and members, with a range of facilities and services. These include electorate office facilities, travel and accommodation entitlement support, personnel-related services, and VIP hire car services — all to the tune of $390 million in 2009–10.
Former Australian Democrats senator Andrew Murray told the Senate last year that under one allocation of funds or another "office entitlements have expanded to provide enhanced parking and travel allowances for parliamentarians and their staff; broadband web access; significant computer, electronic and mechanical office enhancements; two phone lines, two mobile phones, a digital organiser and increased subscriptions."
"The public purse is now funding transport and telecommunication costs, mail and printing costs, the running of websites, the maintenance of electoral databases — all trappings of political incumbency and all worth many millions of dollars in each political cycle."
Information about expenditure by Finance and Deregulation for MPs’ travel and use of cars is published twice a year, but not on the web. Travel allowance for all those nights in Canberra is paid on the basis of details of arrival and departure. There is no reporting or disclosure of whether it goes to a hotel, to a friend, spouse, or supporter, or to pay off the mortgage.
In a Senate Estimates Committee hearing in February, departmental officials said some parliamentarians have refused for years to sign off a statement that the expenditure by the Department on their behalf was properly incurred. No one has been publicly named.
Eight years ago the Auditor General, after examining the payment of entitlements to Federal MPs, commented about the Australian system compared to others. He said that compared to Australia, the parliaments of Canada and the United States "provide for significantly greater levels of public disclosure of the guidelines and/or rules that govern entitlements’ expenditure by the members of the respective legislatures; and of the costs incurred by the individual members."
Nothing has changed since.
If NSW is any guide, the situation in the states and territories is the same or worse.
In NSW there is no public reporting of expense reimbursements and allowance expenditure by members of parliament. The Parliament, like the parliaments in all Australian states and territories, is also not subject to state freedom of information legislation.
In a Greens research project on MPs’ pay and perks, NSW MLC Lee Rhiannon lists the following entitlements for NSW parliamentarians that require no public accounting: expense allowance for some members; electorate allowance; logistical support allocation, a lump sum to spend on travel, printing, stationery and other "office expenses"; electorate mailout account; Sydney allowance for non-Sydney MPs; printing bonus for some for additional printing; and charter transport for rural MPs in large electorates. Parliamentarians also have home fax and phone bills paid, and free flights to and from Sydney — over 100 per year.
The Federal and NSW Governments have separately announced in recent weeks that they will not act upon recommendations from the Australian Law Reform Commission and the NSW Ombudsman respectively to extend freedom of information legislation to cover the parliament. No explanations have been offered to date. Extension would bring our parliaments in line with the UK since the commencement of their FOI Act in 2000 — and still a long way behind others such as the Scottish Parliament, where declarations of interests and expense reimbursements and allowance acquittals are the subject of continuous disclosure on the web.
You can see why the Australian media has been lapping up the UK revelations. We’re unlikely to be reading about anything of the sort that happens in our own backyard.
Memo to your local MP: "Please explain!"
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