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.