In a bizarre press release yesterday, even by Malcolm Roberts’ own standards, One Nation’s wackiest senator has found a miraculous invention that will solve all our travel rort woes.

How to stop the endless cycle of pollies misusing their expense allowances and being caught over summer and forced to repay them? There is a simple solution, as we suggested yesterday: easily accessible data and more frequent reporting. But the Senator from Queensland yesterday proposed a solution that could best be described as a press release relaying something someone told him at the pub. Roberts wants a “transparency portal”:

“A transparency portal is an inexpensive web-based computer programme that displays all government expenditure on the internet in real time for public view. It has been proven to pay for itself many times over with the expenditure it saves through higher accountability. The portal is used throughout the United States and Europe; now it’s Australia’s turn!”

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

This came after a briefing from Tim Andrews, from the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance. The group has been calling for such websites for years, and it is a laudable goal. Some of the sites listed on ATA’s website would be perfect models for Australia. However, Roberts’ proposal is scant in detail, and seems to conflate government contracts with politicians’ spending:

“Mr Andrews informed me that in the US the portal was used to uncover the fact that in one state government printer-cartridges were being double ordered, and a thrifty member of the public saved the government $500,000USD,” Roberts said.

“Within months of the portal being implemented overseas most governments departments immediately reduced expenditure significantly as they realised they were being watched by millions of people.”

[Taxpayers foot $2 million bill for jetsetting pollies during election campaign]

For a man so keen on empirical evidence, these claims were difficult to back up. There was one vague mention in an IPA piece about toner cartridges but nothing of the sort claimed by Roberts, and in a previous submission to the productivity commission, ATA makes a very different claim about printer cartridges:

“In Texas, the State Comptroller was able to utilise the transparency website to identify $4.8 million in savings directly attributed to the launch of the transparency website, and identified an additional $3.8 million in expected savings. This included $73,000 from combining printer and toner contracts and $250,000 from not printing a duplicate study from another agency.”

There is already a site where people can view government contracts. It’s called Austender. Here is a printer cartridge contract from Defence in November. It could definitely be improved, and a whole-of-government tracking of spending would be one way to improve transparency and accountability. One of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s promises when he came into government as the communications minister was to get the Digital Transformation Agency to have a dashboard for government IT contracts to not only show such detail but also the progress of the projects. Although, as we have reported, given the problems with the agency under its former leader Paul Shetler — now strangely the media’s go-to expert on Centrelink’s issues — perhaps it’s not surprising that there is very scant data on the dashboard so far.

Good on One Nation for giving it a go in the transparency fight (I look forward to them arguing for more transparency around the offshore detention contracts with Immigration), but without any detail in the announcement, Roberts’ mysterious one-size-fits-all “web-based computer programme transparency portal” just sounds like snake oil.

Peter Fray

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