Thousands of senior officials swept into expenses review

By Harley Dennett

August 3, 2015

It’s been one rule for public officials and another for politicians, but not for much longer.

Departmental secretaries, heads of federal agencies, commissioners, members of government advisory bodies, judges and other statutory positions have been caught up in the review of parliamentary entitlements, with the committee asked to consider whether they should have the same independent scrutiny and disclosure the public expect for politicians.

David Tune
David Tune

Former federal Department of Finance secretary David Tune and current Remuneration Tribunal president John Conde will co-chair a committee to develop and propose models for an independent parliamentary entitlements system.

Following the resignation of Bronwyn Bishop as Speaker of the House of Representatives on Sunday, the prime minister’s office released terms of reference so that the system is “more transparent and accountable”.

“The government acknowledges that the ad hoc and piecemeal reforms adopted by successive governments mean the system is complex, ambiguous and out of step with community expectations.”

Add the word “opaque” to that description and that’s exactly what the system was designed to be under the Minchin protocol. The Department of Finance may initiate an investigation into suspected misuse of parliamentary entitlements, but it cannot make those findings public, even if referred to the police.

Transparency has returned to the agenda, but only in reference to the rules and usage, not misuse findings.

John Conde
John Conde

In development options for independent oversight, the committee will consider:

  • Reducing ambiguity in what constitutes official business;
  • Providing clarity to members of parliament and their staff about their entitlements and how to use them appropriately;
  • Improving transparency of the rules and entitlements usage;
  • Acknowledging the role of party business in parliamentary business;
  • How to deal more effectively with alleged misuse of entitlements; and
  • How best to support and enable members of parliament to conduct their varied duties within clearly defined rules.

The committee will be supported by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. It will call for submissions, look for best practice in other jurisdictions and provide a report to the prime minister in the first half of next year.

Statutory officers to get expense scrutiny

Public anger at politicians, and recent media reports surrounding the travel expenses of human rights commissioner Tim Wilson, opened the door for the prime minister to declare that this “is not about one person”.

In the press conference announcing the speaker’s resignation and the entitlements review, Tony Abbott did not mention just how wide the scope would be, nor that it would include every public official subject to Remuneration Tribunal determinations on salary and entitlements.

However, a single line in the terms of reference suggests the practice of statutory officials approving their own expenses without independent scrutiny may be about to end:

“In considering this framework, the committee should also examine whether other senior officials, subject to Remuneration Tribunal determinations on salary and entitlements should also fall under a new independent system.”

That clause captures 148 full-time officials, 67 principle executive offices, and part-time office holders in the thousands at the time of the last annual report from the Remuneration Tribunal, not including judicial branch officials.

On Sunday, Abbott said the public deserve to be “absolutely confident that the taxpayer’s money is not being abused”:

“This committee starts with a blank sheet of paper to provide options on a system that is truly independent.”

Read more at The Mandarin: Corruption of bureaucrats and the case for a federal ICAC

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