Wednesday, 12 August 2009
Matters of Public Interest
In the interests of transparency and accountability, I want to take this opportunity to make a short statement on an issue that has received media attention this morning in several newspapers concerning the audit by the Australian National Audit Office into the administration of parliamentarians’ entitlements by the Department of Finance and Deregulation.
As this audit is still in progress it is inappropriate for me to comment on either the conduct or content of the audit at this time. That said, it is a matter of public record that the ANAO is currently conducting an audit into the administration of parliamentarians’ entitlements. I draw the attention of the Senate to the ANAO publication entitled Audit work program, which is accessible from the ANAO website. The Audit work program is published annually in July and identifies the performance audits that are currently being undertaken and a rolling program of potential performance audit topics that could commence that financial year. This is not the first time this issue has been examined by the ANAO. The most recent reports by the ANAO into parliamentarians’ entitlements were the Audit report No.5 2001-02: Parliamentarians’ entitlements: 1999-2000, and the Audit report No.15 2003-04: Administration of staff employed under the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act 1984.
Turning to the parliamentary entitlements framework, I have a few comments. Firstly, it is universally agreed by both parliamentarians and the officials that administer the framework that it is overly complex, based as it is on a mixture of primary legislation, regulations, Remuneration Tribunal determinations, procedural rules, circulars, guidelines, executive decisions and conventions. Secondly, this complexity creates a range of difficulties for both parliamentarians and officials in accessing and administering entitlements, respectively. This was recognised by the ANAO in Audit report No.5 2001-02. These recommendations were not acted upon by the former government, with the consequence that there are a range of legacy issues that are relevant. Thirdly, it is this complexity which has given rise to the reliance by parliamentarians on conventions. The detailed guide provided by the then Special Minister of State in 2003 to the then opposition on the permitted use of entitlements was contained in a document headed ‘Guidance on use of entitlements’. I understand this guidance informed decisions on printing by parliamentarians on both sides of the parliament.
Since the election, the Rudd Labor government has made a number of important reforms in this area, and I pay tribute to the role of my predecessor, Senator Faulkner, in this regard. I want to turn to those reforms. Upon election, the Prime Minister replaced the often disregarded and widely discredited Howard Liberal government’s ministerial code of conduct, with a new, stricter code. In addition, for the first time a code of conduct was developed for ministerial staff. I might add that since the election the number of ministerial staff has been reduced by 20 per cent on an ongoing basis. To ensure transparency in relation to the employment of all staff employed by parliamentarians, regardless of whether they are ministerial, backbench, opposition or minor party, last year the Rudd government also established and published the first annual report of staff employed under the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act 1984. I anticipate the 2009 and second annual report in a few months.
Transparency on the use of travel entitlements has also been extended to parliamentarians, former parliamentarians, their spouses and family members. Only last month I released the first travel report to include details of frequent flyer points accrued and for the first time this report and individual MPs’ study travel reports have been published on the internet. The printing entitlement has been cut by one-third, slashing the entitlement by $50,000 for every MP and $3,333 for every senator. Most recently, the entitlement of parliamentarians to a telecard, the use of which under the previous government was the subject of some infamy, was abolished after successful representation by the government to the Remuneration Tribunal.
While these reforms are specific to parliamentarians, there are a number of other reforms either already implemented or being pursued by this government that will ensure a higher standard of behaviour and integrity. These include, first, the reform of political donations. In a bill currently before the Senate, the Rudd Labor government has proposed reform of election donations to ensure all political donations above $1,000 must be declared. This reverses the Liberal government’s decision to provide secrecy for donations up to $11,200. In addition, it is banning foreign and anonymous donations and removing loopholes that allow the same political party to be treated as a number of different entities to avoid disclosure laws. And, lastly, it is increasing transparency by making political parties report donations six-monthly rather than annually.
Second, there is further reform of electoral laws through a public green paper process, with the second to be released later this year, to ensure all citizens can participate in electoral reform. Third, there is reform of freedom of information laws and an effort to change the culture of secrecy that had built up under the last government into a pro-disclosure culture of transparency. I anticipate that the final legislation will be introduced as soon as possible and certainly well before the end of the year.
Fourth, the government is currently considering the report by Mr Dreyfus QC MP and will bring forward legislation to reform whistleblower protection, in accordance with our election commitment, during the life of this parliament. Fifth, there is reform of government advertising with published guidelines to ensure each publicly funded campaign over $250,000 is objective, factual and non-partisan. We have also significantly reduced expenditure on government advertising down from the record levels achieved by the previous Howard Liberal government.
Sixth, there is reform of the government’s procurement process to ensure greater transparency and accountability, including the announcement only days ago by my counterpart the Minister for Finance and Deregulation of the creation of the procurement coordinator to ensure greater consistency around the procurement framework and a better complaints-handling mechanism. Seventh, there is reform of agency reporting and accountability arrangements through Operation Sunlight to ensure greater budget and spending transparency and integrity. Eighth, there is reform of the government grants process, with new guidelines to stop the kind of reckless waste that occurred under the Liberal and National parties’ rural and regional rorts program.
This government is not complacent under the leadership of the Prime Minister. We are all aware of the need for ongoing reform. This government has demonstrated since its election its commitment to evidence based policy reform. I can assure the Senate that no area, including the area of parliamentary entitlements, is beyond the reach of reform. A package of reforms is currently under consideration by the government, the details of which will be released in due course. Beyond that, and as I stated earlier, it is inappropriate for me as the Special Minister of State—or, for that matter, for any parliamentarian—to comment further whilst the audit is in progress. With those remarks I conclude simply by reiterating the Rudd government’s strong record of reform to promote ethical and transparent behaviour by our public officials that is publicly accountable. I contrast this strong record with the practice of the previous government. Finally, I reiterate our commitment to continuing reform to ensure that we maintain the trust and confidence of the Australian people.