State MPs who live further than 75 kilometres from the Adelaide GPO are entitled to payments of $234 for each night they spend in Adelaide on official business – capped at 135 nights per year – but the system has been under intense scrutiny since an ABC report aired questions about the accommodation arrangements of Upper House president Terry Stephens.
That’s prompted the release to parliament today of thousands of pages of documents dating back a decade related to country MPs’ allowance claims – with three Liberal MPs concurrently agreeing to pay back tens of thousands of dollars worth of claims.
Letters from Barossa-based Knoll, fellow frontbencher and Riverland MP Tim Whetstone and first-term Narungga MP Fraser Ellis to House of Assembly clerk Rick Crump reveal admissions of “errors” and “ambiguity”, prompting the repayment of significant sums from all three.
Knoll wrote that “after reviewing my Country Members Accommodation Allowance claims I would like an invoice raised to repay all claims made between December 2018 and June 2020”.
“The amount is $29,574,” he noted.
“On a without admission basis but given the ambiguity around the definitions provided in the Remuneration Tribunal report and to put the matter beyond doubt, I wish to repay the total amount.”
He said there were also “three days that were claimed due to administrative error”, which he would also repay.
Knoll told parliament he stayed with his parents when in Adelaide, “and I do incur expenses when I do so”.
Ellis wrote that he had claimed the allowance since his election, but had only “recently become aware that on 28 November 2018 the [Remuneration] Tribunal… inserted the words ‘and incurs actual expenditure’ into [its] Determination”.
“I note that the Tribunal did not receive any submissions in respect of that Determination, and, to the best of my recollection I was not informed of it,” he wrote.
“Immediately on becoming aware of the change in the terms of the Determination, I conducted a review of my claims, and sought and received legal advice. Consequent upon that advice I believe that, given the ambiguity in the terms of the Determination, the claims I have made since 28 November 2018 may not fall within the terms…
“In order to assure myself that I have complied… I withdraw each of the claims that I have made since 28 November 2018.”
Previously released documents reveal Ellis claimed $27,140 in 2018-19.
“I would be grateful if you would review each of the withdrawn claims and assist me to expeditiously repay the amount of money I received,” he wrote.
“I wish to assure you that at all times I was acting under the genuine belief that my claims qualified for the allowance.”
Whetstone told parliament he was “a proud country member [who has] truly represented a constituency that needed representation”.
“It was brought to all our attention there were questions around the country MPs allowance [and] I asked my office to do a full audit,” he said.
“They did that, and I found administrative errors which have now been corrected… I take full responsibility and I apologise to the house.”
His office later confirmed he had repaid $6993 relating to claims made before he became a minister. Several other dates claimed since 2018 were amended, but his office said he was still entitled to the allowance for the equivalent days and had merely entered the dates incorrectly.
In a statement, he said that “in 2017-18 I was eligible for 141 nights, 200 nights in 2018-19 and 188 nights in 2019-20 for nights spent in Adelaide on eligible Parliamentary and Ministerial business”.
“In each of these years eligible nights were in excess of the 135 night cap,” he wrote.
“However, the audit also identified a number of administrative errors where claims had been made for nights which were not eligible as required by the guidelines.
“This includes nights travelling in regional SA, attending ministerial meetings interstate, late night returns to the Riverland after Parliamentary Sitting weeks and nights while attending an AgTech and agricultural study tour in the United States in 2018.
“These claims do not meet the guidelines and for that I take full responsibility. Once these administrative errors were identified I immediately provided updated and compliant paperwork to the Parliament.
“I have taken steps to reimburse to the Parliament ineligible claims totalling $6,993, noting that since I have been Minister there have been an excess of eligible nights spent in Adelaide above the 135 night cap. I will submit to the Auditor General copies of my Ministerial diary from March 2018 to substantiate the eligible claims I have lodged with the Parliament.
“I unreservedly apologise for these mistakes.”
The country members allowance applies mainly to Liberal MPs, given their broader representation in regional areas.
Labor has two MPs who claim the allowance – Eddie Hughes in Whyalla-based Giles and Legislative Councillor Clare Scriven.
Premier Steven Marshall told media before the documents were released that they had revealed “some administrative errors”.
“I’ve made it clear to my team that they need to make clear what these errors were,” he said.
“I’m of the opinion there’s been no deliberate dishonesty [but] every member of my team has an obligation to adhere to those guidelines… there have been some errors and this is completely and utterly unacceptable.”
Marshall said he had moved to tighten reporting requirements, with detailed claims now to be published monthly.
The Government has also written to the Auditor-General – who has oversight of the claims – suggesting random audits be implemented to ensure MPs are adhering to the rules.
Opposition Leader Peter Malinauskas said Marshall has “no choice but to immediately sack his ministers Stephan Knoll and Tim Whetstone”.
“We’ve got state cabinet ministers – people who are responsible for the expenditure of public money – now having to pay back tens of thousands of dollars that they’ve taken out of the hands of taxpayers and put in their own pockets,” he said.
“What it really demands is the Premier to show leadership and dismiss these ministers – any other workers in any other workplace who takes money, puts it in their own pocket and is forced to pay it back, doesn’t walk away with no consequence – they would be facing the sack.”
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