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Veteran Lib hits back over travel claims as MPs' expenses thrown open to scrutiny

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Travel allowances paid to MPs based in regional South Australia will be opened to public scrutiny for the first time, but Legislative Council president Terry Stephens insists his own claims have been “within the rules at all times”.

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The long-serving Liberal MLC today hit back at an ABC news report that last night questioned his accommodation arrangements.

He has since 2014 listed Victor Harbor as his principal residence, with the ABC questioning whether paying tenants have stayed at his previous registered voting address before its sale last year, and querying his regular presence at a Norwood property he also owns.

It’s understood Stephens is pursuing legal action over the report. He declined to comment to InDaily today, citing legal advice.

But he subsequently released a statement insisting: “My principal place of residence is Victor Harbor, and at all times during that period I have complied with the rules in respect of accessing the Country Members’ Allowance.”

SA 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.

Details about these payments have not been publicly available previously, with Stephens – as presiding member of the Upper House – originally declining to release them to the ABC.

However, he today relented on that decision, saying in his statement that “while it has never been the practice of previous governments and parliaments to release this information with respect to Country Members, I have taken the decision to release this information”.

It’s understood details of regional MPs’ claims will now be released annually.

“The Auditor-General has oversight of payments of the Country Members’ Allowance, and if ever required by the Auditor-General I would willingly cooperate and provide details to substantiate my personal compliance with the rules,” Stephens said.

“Since 2011, I have lived in an apartment in Victor Harbor,” he detailed.

“From 2010 to 2017, I lived in an apartment that I owned and from 2017 to the current day, I live in an apartment in the same complex, which I lease.”

He said as a member of the Legislative Council, “my electorate office is in Parliament House”.

“The significant volume of Standing Committee meetings, Select Committee meetings, constituent meetings, stakeholder meetings and events that are part of a MLC’s work has meant that I am often required to be in Adelaide when Parliament is not sitting,” he went on.

“Having recently been elected as President of the Legislative Council in February this year, much of my time is spent at Parliament House ensuring the Parliament operates effectively, in conjunction with the Speaker of the House of Assembly.”

Premier Steven Marshall said today he “didn’t know these documents weren’t released automatically” but that he “supported greater transparency”.

“I’m not quite sure why they weren’t put out previously [but] on the face of it, I think the greater transparency we can have the better,” he said.

In a separate joint statement with Lower House Speaker Vincent Tarzia, Stephens wrote that “further to the concerns raised about the lack of transparency regarding detailed members allowance information administered by the Parliament, the Speaker of the House of Assembly and the President of the Legislative Council have taken the unprecedented decision to release the individual breakdown of Country Members Accommodation Allowance  information for financial years 2018-2019 and 2019-20”.

“While it has never been the practice of previous Presiding Officers of either House to release this level of information, we feel it is now incumbent on the Parliament to release this level of detail to provide full transparency and to remove any confusion,” they said.

“We would anticipate that this same level of reporting would continue for subsequent financial years going forward and be included in the Annual Reports of the respective Houses.

“It will be up to individual Members as to the release of Country Members’ Accommodation Allowance information from previous years.”

The documents released revealed Stephens, along with fellow country-based MLC Clare Scriven (Labor) claimed the maximum $31,050 for the 2018-19 financial year, while Liberal John Dawkins claimed $30,590 for 133 nights.

This year to date Stephens has claimed $29,484 for 126 nights, Dawkins $30,186 for 129 and Scriven $20,080 for 120.

Newly-installed Riverland-based Liberal Nicola Centofanti has also claimed the allowance for seven nights since her recent election, costing $1638.

In the lower house, four MPs claimed the maximum entitlement for the full 2018-19 financial year, with a further seven claiming various amounts above $13,000.

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