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Independent enforcer needed for MPs' expenses


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An independent body to regulate politicians’ entitlements is the best way to restore faith in the system, argues Allan Fels.

The parliamentary entitlements review called by Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Sunday is to start “with a blank sheet of paper to provide options on a system that is truly independent”.

The whole system is up for review. This is welcome.

What needs to be done?

The first key change is the emphasis on an independent system of setting and monitoring parliamentary entitlements. The present system could hardly be called that. Expenses are lodged with the Finance Department, which reviews them. But it lacks real authority to overrule claims.

It would seem likely that an independent entity may need to be established not only to set and monitor parliamentary entitlements, but also to operate and enforce the whole system. That would be a big change.

Setting up an independent body would involve considerable expense and heavy use of regulation. But it is probably the best means of restoring faith in the parliamentary entitlements system.

A second important change should be in relation to transparency. The 2010 parliamentary entitlements review, of which I was a member, recommended that the websites of all MPs should provide a link to their expenditures as recorded by Finance. This and some other pro-transparency measures have not been adopted in the five years since then.

Now is the time for a proper system of transparency. It is the best single method of curbing excessive entitlements. Consideration should be given to having a system under which MPs must show on their own website their travel and other expenses and their justification – with this being done within, say, a month of the expenses having been incurred.

The third need is for much clearer rules. Currently the key rules are undefined. MPs can claim travel entitlements in relation to parliamentary, electorate or official expenses. It is not clear what these are. The rules do not even explicitly state that entitlements cannot be claimed for party political events, although that is widely understood to be the rule.

There is no doubt that the rules could be clarified a great deal, even though this is a difficult task and will leave some issues unresolved. What is the entitlement if an MP travels interstate partly to take part in a political party event and partly to take part in an official event? What if part of the travel is for personal business?

What if an MP wants to attend a funeral? We all know the restrictions there are on attending weddings, but what about funerals?

The next change required is greater simplicity. The current system is extremely complex. There is a mass of legislation, rules and practices that overlap, are very difficult to interpret and inconsistent.

The 2010 review proposed that there be legislative and regulatory clarification and resolution of a number of these issues and give a framework for doing so, but no action was taken to implement it. Any serious reform has to sort out the legislative and regulatory maze.

Another proposal is that there be greater emphasis on pre-authorisation of problematic travel requests. There is much to be said for this. Having been a regulator, I can point to the hazards for the regulator of making pre-event rulings because the facts as they appear after the event are often different from the facts as originally specified in the application.

A politician may get advance approval for interstate travel or international travel without disclosing that in their spare time they would be engaging in party political activities or personal business activities. Even so, there is scope for some pre-authorisation.

It would be good if we had a system that generated less political noise. Not only would there be greater trust in MPs and in the political process generally, but we could avoid the major distractions from serious policy debates as a result of controversies over parliamentary entitlements.

Allan Fels is a Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne. He is a former chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

This article was first published at The Conversation.

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