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.
I will start where the minister finished and it is a pity that he did not actually finish where I am going to finish. I have never seen a greater example of a government trying to defend itself and, in relation to this matter that ostensibly is the reason for the discussion, I am not entirely sure why they would be seeking to do so. This is a government that in a very short period of time preaches transparency and practises very little. I do not know why the minister would come in here today and, while talking about a serious matter such as this ANAO inquiry, try a cheap shot. That gives me the opportunity to reply, which I am not going to take up because, quite frankly, I cannot be bothered to talk about some of the extraordinary lack of transparency over the activity going on in relation to just one matter, Julia Gillard’s so-called education revolution and the complete and utter farce in relation to the provision of facilities in schools. I am not going to buy into that. But I will buy into one other thing though. Why the minister keeps banging on about a disclosure bill when the minister is not prepared to address the campaign finance reform issue is, quite frankly, beyond me and I will again put on record that the coalition is completely and utterly committed to comprehensive campaign finance reform.
I want to get back to the matter that the minister should have stuck with when he sought time in the chamber today—when he actually took away from his own colleagues time for a matter of public interest debate—and that is in relation to this inquiry by the ANAO. I do agree with the minister on one matter—that, given that this matter is an audit in confidence, we have got to be extremely careful about what discussions we have. But what I will say is that we have a system whereby there is a wide possible range of interpretations that can be placed on the ordinary words of a given entitlement. Indeed, if you go back to the early eighties, to the discussions in Senate estimates committees, you see that lack of clarity of interpretation has been the real issue. The complicating factor with all this is that the executive actually lacks the constitutional authority to make authoritative pronouncements on the legal meaning of terms in an act or a regulation. That is the exclusive preserve of the courts.
In gratuitously, and I think regrettably, making some sort of attempt to have a whack at what was done during the last government, the minister fails, quite frankly, to acknowledge that indeed we as members and senators were required to put in place a set of principles to address this lack of clarity. There has never been any endeavour elsewhere by the ANAO, the Remuneration Tribunal or others to provide this clarity, which ultimately is the domain of the courts. From discussions involving Australian Democrats, Liberal Party of Australia and Australian Labor Party members and senators, we were required in effect to actually put in place a set of rules by which we could at least have some self-regulation in the absence of any definitive interpretation of what various words meant.
I am very supportive of the role of the ANAO. If they are able to provide the department of finance with definitive advice in relation to interpretations, then no-one would be more grateful than I and, I suspect, my colleagues. But I repeat that there are conventions in place that have determined the outcome of interpretations as to the printing allowance. I welcome ANAO involvement, if they are able to provide greater definitions. The fact is that we—and I mean ‘we’ collectively—were required in 2003 to at least put in place some principles that parties, members and senators knew applied. Those have been standing since 2003 and people have been operating on the back of that. If there is going to be more guidance in relation to that, then I think the group of people who would welcome it most are, quite frankly, the people who are required to operate under that loose set of guidelines.
I welcome this. I should publicly acknowledge, which I am happy to do, that I received a similar letter from the ANAO. I put on the public record that, on the basis of convention, legislation and previous determinations, I believe that was within entitlement. But, if there is going to be some further clarity of that, I think the people in both this chamber and in the other place would be extremely grateful.
Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. The point of order is that I want to speak for just a couple of minutes on the matter before the chamber. I think that would be a better process, to get that over and done with, before we go on to other matters of public interest. I seek leave to do so.
Leave not granted.