Thursday 11 May
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (13:02): The Greens strongly support the Parliamentary Business Resources Bill 2017 and the Parliamentary Business Resources (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2017. The issues of transparency and accountability with regard to how politicians use public money to undertake our work is something that we do feel strongly about. It is an issue that we have taken up regularly over many years. I will come to it later, but right up front I wanted to pay tribute to the work that former leader Christine Milne undertook in this area. She spoke in this House many times on this important issue.
We have heard from the government that the foundation of these bills is that they will build instruments that prescribe all future parliamentary work expenses. Understandably—it is the government—they want to present what they are introducing in a very positive way. They present with great fanfare that this is a new beginning. As I have said, we support it, but to get that new beginning we have to ensure that the misuse of resources does not occur and that the transparency and the accountability is real.
One of the problems with these bills is the lack of penalties. People do do the wrong things. In the future, people who may be here in these chambers already or who may yet be elected will do the wrong thing. There is less chance of that happening if there are penalties in place and much clearer compliance measures. What we know from reading these bills is that the measures do not include clear compliance and penalty provisions. That is needed for the reasons I have just given: to really put it out there so it is much clearer and people are less likely to do the wrong thing.
But we also need the penalties to help restore public confidence in us as politicians and in the very institution of parliament. I am sure one thing we would all be aware of is the deep cynicism among the public about who politicians are and what we do. I was told—and I have not got the source of it—that a poll recently found that 74 per cent of politicians are in this work for themselves. I find that really disappointing. Although I have strong disagreements with my colleagues, particularly on the coalition side and also on the Labor side—we all have our differences—I still believe by far the majority of people, within their own set of values, are here working for what they believe is the common good, irrespective of what we might think of this. But the public do not think that. The public are so deeply cynical. What becomes so damaging when the public end up in that space is that they are less likely to engage with the democratic process. So this bill is really important, but it needs more teeth.
It is all very well for the minister to say that the Turnbull government is committed to comprehensive reforms—and I have heard him say that a number of times and I do acknowledge the work he has put into this—but, again, without those clear penalties and a willingness to enforce them—a willingness to follow through on the penalties also has to be part of this—government reforms in this area will not carry the cultural change that is needed. It is not just the words we get into this bill; it is how the place is operated and how it is seen to operate.
We see that there is a need for a compliance officer position to oversee MPs' use of their allowances. There should be offences for the misuse of allowances or disregarding reporting requirements. The compliance officer should make regular reports to parliament on the status of the investigations of any misuse of allowances.
The latest round of tidying up how allowances are managed by politicians started with a helicopter ride. Unfortunately, you find that so many of the reforms in this area start because there are scandals. I have to say that I am not convinced that what we have here is going to plug the hole on those scandals. We had the former member for Mackellar's helicopter ride to a fundraiser. The former Prime Minister, Mr Abbott, did actually order the inquiry. That inquiry, chaired by John Conde and David Tune, came forward with a whole set of recommendations. One recommendation was for the body that we are now considering.
I wanted to revisit that because it has taken so long for this recommendation to be put in place. The former Prime Minister set up the inquiry, the inquiry brought down its recommendations and we got a new Prime Minister, the member for Wentworth. Yes, there are a number of recommendations, but not too many to consider—I think there are just over 20. It took them more than a year to announce that they will bring forward this recommendation for the establishment of the body we are now considering. That is a good step, but the time lag is again not a healthy look. It just sends the message to the public that they are not really serious about it. Why didn't they really get on with it when the problem became so clear?
There are many aspects dealt with here. I mentioned earlier the work of my former colleague in this place Christine Milne. She and I pay tribute also to the Nick Xenophon Team, who have also done work in this area. Former senator Christine Milne was very passionate about this issue. She spoke in the parliament many times. It was on her initiative that we developed the Greens bill for a national integrity commission. Part of the national integrity commission was the office of an independent parliamentary adviser. That is something that was needed long ago. Maybe it would have prevented the crazy helicopter trip that brought such embarrassment not just to one MP but, I would argue, to the whole institution of the Australian parliament.
If we had such an adviser, they would be there to advise MPs and ministers and we could get clarity on what is sometimes a bit of a grey area in terms of some of the work that we might undertake—'Is it something that parliamentary resources should be spent on?' So we could get that clarity. Also, they would be able to assist in the ethical running of our offices and generally assist in what the standards are that the public expects regarding the right way to operate. I believe that such a position would help address that issue I spoke about earlier regarding the need for cultural change—the advancing problem that we have—which this bill only takes forward in a very small way.
We need to remember why we are here. We have different approaches to our job, but we are here to serve the Australian public. We need to ensure that, when we are using public money, it is done in a way that is accountable and transparent. We need to ensure that the money is being used in a way that advances the interests of the Australian public and is not for self-interest or being abused in any way. We need to ensure that, every time we claim an expense of the many resources and allowances that we are provided with, we and the public can be confident that these resources and allowances are being used in the right way.
We support many of the aspects that are set out here in terms of value for money and being very clear about what is parliamentary business. But the issue around the penalties is something that really needs to be revisited in detail. It is a major weakness, and we are not seeing movement from the government in this area. I acknowledge that one aspect of the bill provides that, if an MP refuses to pay back money that they owe within 28 days, there is a 25 per cent loading on their repayment. I would argue that that is not enough. It is too low, and I cannot see that it would operate as a discouragement or disincentive to MPs. These aspects need to be completely tightened up to ensure not only that the rules and procedures are followed absolutely but also that the public can be clear that the right thing is being done and that we are not going to have another morning where, when we wake up, the front page of the newspaper is about the abuse of travel allowances or the misuse of any of the other allowances that we are afforded with to undertake our work.
The whole issue of allowances is an area that needs work. I would argue that the Parliamentary Business Resources Bill 2017 is only one small step in the work that needs to be undertaken. The Greens are ready to support it, but we hope that there will be in-depth consideration of those hard issues—for example, how we can put penalties in place that will make a difference, will be enforced and will act as a disincentive to MPs who might consider doing the wrong thing.