Tuesday, 8 September 2009
Report No. 3 of 2009-10
Senator Brown, I know that you do have, and maintain, a significant interest in this area. I recognise the contribution you have just made. On behalf of the government, I will briefly outline a response shortly. I will firstly go to a couple of issues. One, the recommendations have been accepted in full by the government. I am pleased to announce today that I have responded to the Australian National Audit Office’s performance audit report on the administration of parliamentary entitlements. Today’s report does show that on the issue of parliamentary entitlements the system is—quite frankly—vague, ambiguous and ill-defined. It is fair to say that the report is critical of both the way politicians have accessed their entitlements and the way Finance has administered them.
In particular, the report does deal with—as I think you have outlined, Senator Brown—five areas in total. It was a comprehensive examination of five specific entitlements. They looked at office consumables, paper and toner. They looked at newspaper and periodicals. They looked at the communication allowance. They looked at the printing entitlement. And, of course, they looked at car transport. The audit focussed, though, on the use of printing entitlements by 144 members and senators from three states, primarily in the months leading up to, and during, the 2007 election.
As I indicated, the government have accepted all of the recommendations of the Auditor-General. Today I have also announced a package of reform measures to address those recommendations. We also indicate that there will be a two-step process. The first is the package I will shortly outline and the second is a review of the entitlements. That review of the entitlements will be undertaken by an independent panel. I will deal with the reforms first. We know from the Auditor-General’s report that this framework is complex and overdue for reform. We know that the Auditor-General suggested a review of the system in 2001. We also know that there was no reform of the entitlements in the intervening eight years. As a consequence, there is a loud and clear call for reform and the Rudd government will answer.
Of the reforms I have announced today, the first and most immediate change will be an immediate cut to the printing entitlement of 25 per cent, reducing the total amount from $100,000 to $75,000. That will mean a reduction of the entitlement by half since the Rudd government came to office. In addition, the rules for how to access the entitlements will be changed. Access will be strictly limited to parliamentary or electorate business. For the first time, we will put in the regulations a clear definition of ‘electioneering’. This will specifically prevent the use of the entitlement for the production of party-political or electioneering material, including such things as how-to-votes and party-political flyers. The second area I announce a change in will be the previously unlimited expenditure on office consumables like toner, paper and stationery. Expenditure will be capped and indexed to $35,000 per annum. This will ensure that the use of that entitlement in election years does not, as it has in the past, spike around election periods and that there will not be a shift from the printing entitlement to office consumables.
Members will be required to authorise all printing of material. The authorisation will be in the form of a clear written statement in the material, with a standard 10-point font informing constituents that the material has been printed at Australian government expense and which member has produced it. The taxpayer will be able to understand who has printed the material, as it will be printed clearly on the pamphlet. It will be only about parliamentary or election business. The printing entitlement-communication allowance will also be combined—and this is effectively an overdue reform—so that there will be one entitlement. They have been in the past—and I think the ANAO highlights this—overlapping. The entitlement framework will be clearer, more transparent and more streamlined. In addition, the role of Finance in administering the entitlement will be dramatically strengthened. There will be more rigorous checking at the front end, where the entitlement will be checked before it is accessed by parliamentarians. There will be more rigorous checking before and after—that is, when the entitlement is being accessed by members and senators—to ensure that the material printed is within entitlement. At the back end there will be a more rigorous checking system when invoices for printing are presented and paid for.
To ensure that the printing providers themselves have reasonable access, there will be multiuser lists available. Those will ensure that people in regional and remote areas can have the printer provider and not be disadvantaged, but the multiuser list will ensure that the taxpayer gets value for money. The purpose of establishing a multiuser list is to support the local printing business. The current newspaper and periodical allowance will also be reformed to ensure that it is only used for parliamentary or official business and that the titles purchased, with the allowance and the costs, will be publicly reported. It will be about ensuring openness and transparency in the entitlement. As soon as practicable, we will drive a more open and transparent system so that the Department of Finance and Deregulation can place that material on the web, to use the general term. It will ensure that people will be able to understand what we have accessed, what amount we have spent and what we have spent it on. It will also mean the taxpayer and the general public will be able to understand the entitlement.
I indicated at the outset that there is a second part, which is the wider reform. A panel will consist of four distinguished public servants. I am sure this chamber would be aware of Barbara Belcher, a former First Assistant Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Also on the panel will be Mr John Conde AO, President of the Remuneration Tribunal; Ms Jan Mason, General Manager, Corporate and Parliamentary Services, Department of Finance and Deregulation; and Professor Allan Fels AO, former ACCC Chairman and now Dean of the Australia and New Zealand School of Government. The panel will provide a report to government within six months of commencement. The report and recommendations of the panel will be reported publicly and will be considered by the government as a basis for a second-stage reform of the entitlements system.
The Auditor-General’s report sheds light on a system that is in bad need of repair. Entitlements, as we know, are ill defined, vague and difficult for Finance to administer. The parliamentary entitlements system has developed in an ad hoc way over many years. We know from the ANAO report, in looking at parliamentary entitlements, particularly the printing allowance, that parliamentarians have acted on the advice of the previous government. This advice by the ANAO has now been called into question by subsequent legal advice obtained in the course of the audit. I think the ANAO report makes that plain. This has left many politicians who have acted in accordance with the Howard government’s advice at the time at some risk of being found to have their entitlements outside of the framework. There is ambiguity within the framework itself, and that is why the Rudd government is moving to put in place clear rules and greater transparency. (Time expired)