Thursday, 16 February 2017
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (19:31): The Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority Bill 2017 is supported by the Greens. It is largely about transparency and accountability, and that is obviously essential when we look at the use of public money. But what we need to realise here is that the authority is not a panacea. It does not mean that the scandals are going to stop. The issue of MPs misusing their allowances has been perennial across many Australian parliaments, sadly. For the past three decades scandals have broken, careers have been ruined and the public have become more cynical about their MPs and about the political process, which is very detrimental to the democratic system. Every scandal has brought promises that the allowance system would be changed.
I think it is worth reminding ourselves of some of these scandals. The way the government is spinning this package of legislation is that this is now the solution to the scandals that have broken and the whole way that allowances are managed—now there is a new way. The scandals have been considerable and serious, so let's just remind ourselves. There was former minister Sussan Ley and her $13,000 for chartered flights between capital cities. There was Julie Bishop's $2,700 to attend a polo event in the Mornington Peninsula, and on top of she has gone to Derby Day, the Melbourne Cup and rugby events using entitlements. Chris Bowen and Brendan O'Connor—$10,000 was their expense account to take their families to Darwin in 2015. Probably the one that takes the cake is a gaggle of coalition frontbenchers using about $16,000 of public money to attend a number of weddings. On top of that we have Tony Burke going to Uluru—$12,000 to take his family. Another interesting one, because not all the ministers applied for public money to help them to go to this: Mr Dutton, Senator Brandis, Senator Fifield and Senator Birmingham—$7,000 to go to the Prime Minister's harbourside mansion on New Year's Eve in 2015.
I read them out because that is what has brought us here tonight on Thursday night, when most people thought they would be at home with their families. We are dealing with legislation that the government has brought in in response. Clearly they had to respond when the Sussan Ley episode ran so out of control. But again, they are not going the full distance. Yes, there is the authority, something the Greens have worked hard for and many other people have advocated for, I acknowledge—but there are not enough teeth here. There need to be penalties. There needs to be clearer compliance.
I have reminded the Senate of some of the scandals. Let's remind ourselves of the number of times there have been inquiries bringing forward recommendations. Let's run through them quickly. In 2001-02 there was an audit report on parliamentary entitlements. In 2009-10 there was an ANAO audit report on parliamentary entitlements. In 2010 there was what became known as the Bletchley report, reviewing entitlements. In 2011, just a year later—it is interesting that when you get to more recent times these reports are coming out about every couple of years—it was the Williams review, again looking at entitlements. In 2015 another ANAO audit report on the administration of travel entitlements. In 2016 we had the Australian Taxation Office ruling on the tax treatment of allowances and accommodation expense. Again in 2016, we had the Conde and Tune report, an independent report on the entitlements system. That is an extraordinary array of reports and a huge amount of work gone in with many recommendations brought forward.
We are left here with an authority bill. Again, to put it on the record solidly so that our position is not represented, we have been all the way with this authority bill. We support it strongly. But when you look at it the question comes through immediately: what is its main job? Advising, monitoring, reporting and auditing—with so little on compliance. The bill and the explanatory memorandum reveal the extent of the problem.
The Greens, as I have said, are very pleased that the authority is about to come into place. But the failure of the government to give the authority a solid compliance system is a serious problem. I can illustrate how serious this is with a very useful submission that the Australian Federal Police put in to the inquiry that the former Prime Minister, Mr Abbott, called after the so-called 'choppergate' incident. This is from the Australian Federal Police. In their submission they said that the existing system made it difficult to prove misuse of public money. They called for a clear definition of 'parliamentary business' as part of an independent entitlement system with greater governance to ensure money spent was appropriate.
The AFP actually revealed that they had received 70 complaints since 2013 about MPs. Interestingly, they say most of them came from MPs from rival parties. But they said there was not much supporting evidence and, ultimately, no action was taken. The AFP said that because there was no workable definition of 'parliamentary business' it was difficult to prove misuse as, in their words:
… the arbiter in determining parliamentary business is the Member or Senator themselves.
Again, these are direct quotes from that submission.
… the AFP faces a number of impediments in proving a criminal offence (e.g. fraud) stemming from the misuse of given entitlements.
… … …
… proving the use of entitlements is not for the purposes of parliamentary business is difficult. The definition of parliamentary business is not outlined in legislation or any governance framework relating to parliamentary entitlements.
The AFP said that under the existing system complaints without evidence were referred to the Department of Finance and that the police kept a watching brief that could be reactivated if the department referred the matter back. Again, it is a reminder of the whole problem we have here with compliance.
So it is good news that we now have what looks like a workable definition of 'parliamentary business'. Hopefully, that will allow the AFP and other authorities to pursue complaints. That, really, is incredibly critical to how this issue is managed. If we do not achieve that, there will be growing public cynicism. When the scandals break, there will not be much that can be done about it, and that will just add to people's cynicism. They will just think it is more words and more politicians making out that they are doing something when there is not really a solution there. So I do move this as a second reading amendment:
At the end of the motion, add:
", but the Senate supports the establishment of a Compliance Officer position within the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority with the power to conduct an investigation if they have reason to believe that a Member of Parliament has received a payment that should not have been allowed and refer any breaches to the relevant authorities.".
That will go some way to putting on record the urgent need for this authority not only to be established but to have teeth.