Jan 11, 2017

Pollie expenses are an easy fix, but don’t hold your breath

The summer time expenses scandal could be a thing of the past if politicians wanted it to be.

Josh Taylor — Journalist

Josh Taylor


We could quickly dispense with the summer ritual of travel expenses scandals if the government actually did what was recommended and overhauled the expenses system, but that would be too easy. The summer slowdown and the lack of news that comes with it gives journalists the time and resources to spend sometimes days at a time sifting through the hundreds of PDFs uploaded onto the Department of Finance's website looking at the travel claims made by MPs over the past few years. One of the frequent comments made about the expenses scandal is that people wonder why it sometimes takes years -- as in the case of Julie Bishop's water polo trip, Sussan Ley's Gold Coast apartment purchase, and Darren Chester's investment property -- for journalists to discover the detail. The difficulty is built into the system. When Malcolm Turnbull was communications minister, he made a big deal about uploading as many data sets as possible to data.gov.au for people to access and use the data as they wish. One big missing piece though is the expenses claimed by parliamentarians. That's not by accident. There has been little motivation on either side of politics to make the data available in a format that would be useful to the general public, because then it would be much harder to get away with much of what MPs claim today. A minister or senator here or there might get raked over the coals when journalists dig something up, but the process of finding these things is laborious and time-intensive. But by not making the data available to the general public in an accessible format, politicians can keep avoiding scrutiny. For now. Manually trawling through a politicians claimed expenses and then seeing if that lines up with a trip to the AFL grand final, or an impulse buy of an investment property on a scanned PDF image isn't easy. That's if the politician has declared everything correctly in the first place. Department of Finance has the raw data in a machine-readable format, but when asked by Crikey yesterday whether such data was available, the department said the PDFs for individual politicians were the only ones available. There's always FOI, but that adds at least another 30 days to the process, and would likely require additional requests for each politician for each six-month period of expenses. If the data were available in, say, a spreadsheet format, it would be much easier to work out exactly what was being charged and when, and who was making questionable expenses claims. David Tune, in his report to government on travel expenses almost a year ago -- and still not acted upon by government -- recommended that instead of twice-yearly reporting of expenses, it should move to monthly, and the data should be published on data.gov.au in a machine-readable format so it is actually usable. It's not that hard to do. New Zealand MPs report their expenses quarterly in useful formats to the public (although they are not itemised as ours are), and public servants also publish their expenses. But there is little motivation to do so when there is so little at stake under the current system. One ministerial resignation here or there is nothing when most MPs can just -- thanks to the Minchin protocol -- just go ahead and repay the money with no big fuss. And no trip to the debt collectors and threats of jail time, like Centrelink recipients receive. The Department of Finance received funding for a scoping study in the 2015-2016 budget to look at a new system for managing parliamentary entitlements. We asked Finance about whether the study had been finalised but received no response. The department would not comment on whether it planned on making the data available to data.gov.au. Part of the reluctance seems to be a lack of clarity around the exact rules for claiming expenses (though the old "if in doubt, leave it out" should probably apply). Financial Services Minister Kelly O'Dwyer said yesterday the government would work to implement the 36 recommendations from the Tune review in the first half of this year. Without going into any specifics about what would be changed, O'Dwyer said that the system would be "streamlined" and the rule clarified.

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13 thoughts on “Pollie expenses are an easy fix, but don’t hold your breath

  1. Robert Kirby

    There is an easier way than managing data after the fact. That is, change expenses to reimbursement of actual expenses, rather than payment of per diems. Actual expenses incurred means there is no motivation to receive an overnight tax free allowance of $300 per night away. Hence travel is for actual business rather than pleasure. Introducing an expense management system, such as Concur, means that pollies can process their expense claims using a credit card processed automatically into the system. Full visibility and no delays, as the claims are processed real time as the transactions take place. Time for the system to match present day technology and business practice.

  2. David Havyatt

    Reform should start by referring to it as “expenditure” not “entitlements”

  3. Khupert the Runt

    With regard to both comments, and with a quick look at the 36 recommendations, I don’t think anything is going to change. The biggest rort is the the one where polly x gets an invite or has a yen to be in say Melbourne for a big private event, when they live in say Brisbane.

    The existing process seems to be: Make an appointment on that date at a convenient time with someone which could pass the test of being “parliamentary business”. Book your trip with all the bells and whistles, have your quick bit of “parliamentary Business” and go on to the 6 star hotel, or Melbourne Cup or footy final or 60th Birthday, and claim the whole lot as parliamentary business.

    Unless there is a) public knowledge of the private events that parliamentarians attend, and b) some test of whether the “parliamentary business” has been confected, we will continue to suffer politicians who exploit this loophole. None of the 36 recommendations address this.

    Sorry, but in my view it’s a whitewash!

  4. Richard

    Perhaps politicians can be treated very much as anybody else traveling for business ..(Perish the thought!).
    If I go on a business trip:
    1) I have to justify it. It has t o fall into one or more of a number of specific categories. Talking to clients/customers/patients, in this day and age of instantaneous communication is not acceptable.
    2) I can not take my partner on the taxpayers $$ unless they have a clearly defined role in my business and I certainly can not take kids.
    3) If there is a side function that for instance, is on one day of 3 away, then that 33% is not claimable and neither are any other associated expenses.
    4) If I want to talk to somebody about something that can’t really be done by letter, I don’t fly RAAF or any other airline (Business class of course), or expect the taxman to allow my aircraft charter .. No, I either pick up the phone or FaceTime or Skype. Given the facilities that Parliament has, it is inexcusable that trips are allowed “to fact find”.. As an aside, I would suggest that all flyer points that our country and globe trotting public servants accrue at taxpayers expense, should automatically be given over to charity.

    Why are our public servants still allowed to think they have these huge entitlements? It is not as if they are doing a fraction of the good they claim to be.
    Mos of the work would get done without all their grandstanding and attending football matches… Why should I have to pay for these ba$tardS?

  5. Brett Davidson

    Oh dear. Julie Bishop didn’t go on a water polo trip. If only water polo was so glamourous!

  6. Mike Smith

    PDFs are quite able to be machine read and put into other forms, spreadsheets if you like, although a spreadsheet is just a badly designed database.

  7. Sally Goldner

    Another possible solution is teach politicians and anyone else in a position of influence words like responsibility and ethics – it just might take a long time. 🙂

  8. klewso

    Why can’t our parliament just adapt/adopt any of those systems that work?
    This mob would stand to loose too much?

    Treat ’em like they treat those of our society on “benefits”?
    “If you organise your parliamentary business to suit your personal business = red flag”?

  9. Daly

    I would like people to distinguish between three categories of people:
    – politicians, who are the subject of this article, who we elect to Parliament
    – their parliamentary and electoral office staff who are employed by them for their parliamentary term, usually party apparatchiks and
    – public servants who work in departments like Human Services and statutory authorities like the Tax Office to deliver programs to the public. These people have extremely tight regulations and budgets for any travel or entitlements; much tighter than private sector employees in my experience.
    The first two categories seem to have lax rules and little accountability, hence the travel scandals each January.

  10. The Curmudgeon

    Do these rorters ever consider that every revelation helps fuel disenchantment with the system and, ultimately, assists with the election of extremists promising to drain the swamp? Are they stupid, or do they just not care?

    1. old greybearded one

      They think and know that WE are stupid because we do not punish them.

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