Liberal MP Bronwyn Bishop’s cash splash on helicopters, chauffered cars and European tours
launched a thousand memes on social media.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull needs to urgently act on his promise to reform politicians’ work expenses before another one gets busted, say academics.
Parliamentary expenses have been under the spotlight again recently, with the high profile resignation of federal Health Minister Sussan Ley earlier this month.
Ms Ley quit after it emerged that she had purchased a $795,000 Gold Coast apartment ‘on impulse’ during a taxpayer-funded trip. News of her chartering and flying planes to attend work meetings back in 2015 delivered the coup de grace.
During the ensuing storm of negative public opinion and media commentary, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull committed to creating a new independent parliamentary standards authority to vet politicians’ expenses claims, similar to that established in the UK after the 2009 MP’s expenses scandal exploded.
It is understood that the new body’s board would include the President of the Renumeration Tribunal, as well as former public servants, judges and politicians and an auditing expert; probably taking over from the Department of Finance, which currently administers the system of complex laws and rules around politicians’ expense claims.
Mr Turnbull has also pledged to address the 36 recommendations contained in a February 2016 Renumeration Tribunal Review into politicians’ work expenses led by Tribunal President John Conde and former Finance secretary David Tune.
The review was commissioned by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott following Liberal MP Bronwyn Bishop’s notorious Choppergate scandal the previous year.
The Reviews’ 36 recommendations included making the distinction clearer between official and personal business and defining whether duties are party political, electorate or office duties.
Prof Rodney Smith, who teaches Australian politics and public sector ethics at Sydney University’s Department of Government and International Relations, said immediate action was needed to dispel the ‘widespread public suspicion’ that politicians fiddled their expense claims, overlaid by the general idea that politicians were in it for themselves.
“I think it’s probably at a point where if nothing happens or there are only superficial reforms, the government is only really going to be making a rod for its own back further down the track if someone else has been embroiled in another scandal,” Prof Smith said.
But he said the public sometimes lacked understanding about what the job entailed.
“[Australia’s] geography is very big. It’s inevitable that you’re going to need some kind of reasonable scheme for travel and associated costs for doing your job as minister.”
AJ Brown, Professor of Public Policy and Law at Griffith University’s Public Integrity and Anti-Corruption in the Centre for Governance, said the task of reforming the system “really is very urgent” and creating an independent regulatory body was a good start.
At the moment it was a system “that’s still fundamentally under the control of those who would stick their noses in the trough” leaving MPs to their own devices – and consciences.
But despite the positive move to take expenses away from the purview of politicians, he said the new body should also adjudicate on broader corruption issues such as conflict of interest, code of conduct and interest registers.
“I think they can get this moving but the pressure will mount for them to broaden its jurisdiction,” Prof Brown said. “It links in with having a stronger federal anti-corruption body generally because some of these issues are even more serious.
“My big fear is that this new authority won’t have the jurisdiction to cover all of these things that are sometimes more important and controversial, in terms of parliamentary ethics and standards: issues of public confidence.”
Prof Brown also backs creating a new role of Parliamentary Integrity Commissioner, one originally suggested by former PM Julia Gillard and the Independents, to cover all areas of parliamentary standards.
Self-regulation has failed
Whatever occurs, it is clear that MPs regulating their own expenses’ claims has manifestly failed.
Prof Brown said that the independence of auditing and compliance needed to be upgraded because politicians had not been subject to sufficient checks and balances.
The rules that exist are too complex and have been built up ad hoc over many years, “The Finance Department have had a terrible time trying to administer it”, he added.
“I don’t think they’re [politicians] any more venal than the rest of the world and much of them are less venal but they have been the victims of weak systems.
“Just the assumption they don’t need some extra policing to help them keep in line like the rest of the world,” he said.
Australia had dropped the ball a bit when it came to clamping down on corruption.
“Australia has been very complacent about allowing these issues about corruption generally, both small and large scale. We’re really just catching up with the rest of the world,” Prof Brown said.
“We need to make sure we’ve got our act together and our systems in place, especially because of how much more competitive the world is and how much faster we are operating.”
Both men said that some politicians failed the pub test but still acted within the rules, partly because they belonged to a kind of insider community where what was viewed as convenient and acceptable to getting the job done could be at odds with broader public experience.
Prof Brown said: “It’s so easy for people in positions of power to confuse what they’re doing in the public interest with what they want to do in their own personal or political interest. It’s not about individuals, it’s about human nature.
“People set their standards on what they see other people do and think it’s ok or they see other people get away with it. The risk of people in high office losing their connection to the community is high.”
Prof Smith said that, for the most part, politicians did the right thing but sometimes just got sucked in to what appeared to be the ‘rules of the game’ and slipped up.
The big three areas of expense claims that need to be addressed by Mr Turnbull’s government are probably: travel expenses, the definition of official business and family reunion allowances.
Prof Smith said parliamentary travel entitlements had long been one of the most problematic areas in Australian politics due to the sheer number of politicians caught up in questionable travel claims and because public opinion was often fierce around such debates.
Prof Smith said the rules need to be tightened up in some instances and clarified in others.
“They are much more specific than they used to be but there are still some fairly broad limits in the rules. An example is [the definition of] official business,” he said.
Travel expenses have generated some of the most egregious and colourful scandals over the years.
Federal MP Bronwyn Bishop famously fell foul of public opinion in July 2015.
Choppergate put paid to her time in the Speaker’s chair in the House of Representatives and launched a thousand memes on social media after she charged the taxpayer more than $5,000 for a cheeky 80-km helicopter trip from Melbourne to a Liberal Party function in Geelong, rather than drive.
Neither did it help when Ms Bishop blew $88,000 on a European trip, part of which included her campaigning for the presidency of Inter-Parliamentary Union; or charging taxpayers $600 for a return flight to fellow Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella’s wedding, an expense that Mr Abbott himself paid back and advised other pollies to do the same.
What counts as official?
A common argument from politicians is that their expenses claims – often relating to travel – are within the rules but later admitting that they would not have passed the ‘pub test’.
The problem is, of course, that travel claims like these appear [in Labor Leader Bill Shorten’s words] ‘colossally arrogant’ and out of touch to the general populace, particularly when the government is in the middle of a highly flawed benefits crackdown and gearing up to reduce maternity leave.
These stories feed the public perception that says politicians are ‘all the same’ and have their snouts in the trough, leading rarefied lives compared with the rest of us. It is not a good look; neither does it foster much public confidence in the political system or the people elected to serve inside it.
Deciding on what constitutes official business clearly needs to be addressed and this is one of the recommendations of the Conde Review.
Few things raise the hackles of ordinary folk more than politicians charging taxpayers when they attend major sporting or cultural events as guests of a private company.
Tasmanian Senator David Bushby, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann and Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer, Steve Ciobo stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy after they charged taxpayers thousands of dollars to attend the 2013 AFL Grand Final, dubiously excusing themselves by saying they had important work chats with the companies that invited them.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop charged taxpayers $2716 to attend a polo match in the Mornington Peninsula last year as guest of beer maker Peroni and car company Jeep. Ms Bishop defended her expenses claim, saying she was attending in her official capacity.
I miss my family
Family reunion travel – designed to reduce the isolation many politicians experience from being on the road a lot – has also attracted a fair amount of negative attention.
Labor’s Tony Burke spent nearly $13,000 on flights, a hire car and other allowances when his family joined him on a four-day trip to Uluru in 2012 when he was federal Environment Minister. Even the kids flew business class, which Mr Burke later admitted was ‘indefensible’.
While Mr Burke claimed the taxpayer bill was legitimate because he was on official business and visiting aboriginal communities, others did not see it the same way.
The $90 Comcar to travel to a Robbie Williams concert also failed to endear him to a critical public.
It is another area that the Review suggests needs changing, reiterating that family reunion travel can only be funded if the politician is at the location for work, underlining that it should not be used to sneak in a taxpayer-funded family holiday.
How should reform proceed?
Prof Smith said making data transparent is critical to good reform because it will increase public confidence in the system and keep MPs on their toes.
At the moment, expenses are published every six months. The Review has recommended this reporting be narrowed to monthly to help open up and demystify the process, as well as to give the public a better understanding of politicians’ jobs.
He said that abuses often came to light accidentally or through freedom of information requests from journalists. Many never came to light.
“Politicians would be more careful just as they are more careful about accepting political donations or ministers having meetings with lobbyists, because they know there is greater transparency and greater understanding of what’s legitimate and what’s not,” Prof Smith said.
The Conde Review’s key recommendations
- Define ‘parliamentary business’ to determine legitimate expenses claims
- ‘Entitlements’ or ‘benefits’ now to be referred to as ‘work expenses’
- Create a single legal framework to deal with work expenses and guide politicians
- Publish rules and details of work expenses on data.gov.au, quarterly and then monthly
- Principle of value for money to be central
- Helicopters cannot be chartered to cover short distances ‘in the absence of compelling reasons’
- A 25 per cent penalty to be paid where expenses claims are ruled invalid, not just those relating to travel
- Prohibit the use of car and driver, including COMCAR, for journeys that are primarily personal
- Abolish the $10 per night travelling allowance for partners accompanying ministers or office holders
- Explore the option of leasing vehicles, rather than buying private plated vehicles
- Tighten family reunion eligibility – only fund trips for partners and children when they join the MP or Senator who is there for the parliamentary business
- Reduced provision for former parliamentarians who don’t qualify for a Life Gold Pass
- Provide politicians from the Big Six electorates (over 500,000sq km) with a third staff office, second vehicle offset and extra travel allowance for stopovers on official business
Transparency International Australia will hold its National Integrity 2017 conference on March 16 and March 17 at the Novotel Brisbane.
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