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August 2006
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Daily Media Quotation

Incumbent MPs Load Up The Gravy Train

August 24, 2006

by Norm Kelly - Canberra Times

Many people have a cynical attitude towards politicians, believing they are in the business primarily for self-interest. The recent decision by the Howard Government to increase the printing allowance for House of Representatives MPs from $125,000 to $150,000 a year will only strengthen such cynicism.

There is an even more striking increase for senators - the current 10 reams of paper a month entitlement (worth less than a $1000 a year) increases to $20,000 a year. These latest rises come on top of the increase in the postage allowance (a separate entitlement), passed by the Coalition and Labor last year. It went from $27,500 to about $45,000 a year for MPs.

Another concern about these allowances is that roll-over provisions have been introduced, so that parliamentarians can carry-over an unused portion of an entitlement into the following year - a very handy condition in the lead-up to an election. Unfortunately, such increases blur the boundary between the legitimate needs of being an effective Member of Parliament, and the illegitimate use of incumbency to further partisan interests. In other democracies there are strict controls over the use of parliamentary allowances of this kind.

The Government's defence is that MPs face growing demands for information on matters such as child care and seniors' entitlements.

While some would argue that the quality of information they receive from their local MP is more about self-promotion than providing information, parliamentarians should have a reasonable degree of freedom to use legitimate entitlements as they see fit, as they will be held accountable at the next election. Of course, information on how funds are spent should be readily accessible to the public.

If the need to service and inform the electorate was the real purpose, then the Government would impose strict guidelines as to how the entitlement could be used, and not allow the money to be used for blatant electioneering. The use of taxpayers' money to fund election campaigns is already provided for under public funding legislation (and there are plenty of arguments about that issue for another day).

For the 2004 election, public funding amounted to $41 million, with almost $38million of this going to the Coalition and Labor. However, the Coalition Government, with Labor's blessing, is providing its MPs with additional campaign resources, in an unaccountable form, under the guise of "servicing the electorate".

Under a change in policy that quietly occurred in the lead-up to the 2004 election, the Government's guidelines now explicitly allow the printing allowance to be used for campaigning purposes such as the production of party-endorsed how-to-vote cards. This significant change is probably indicative of a complacent Government that is well aware that the Opposition will not create a fuss, as Labor benefits equally from the change.

It is hardly what you would call a level playing field when incumbent parties and parliamentarians can use their self-granted benefits of office in a supposedly democratic election. Last week, Human Services Minister Joe Hockey defended this latest increase by arguing that Labor had initiated similar increases when it was in government.

This is the classic tu quoque argument - that previous bad actions by the other side justify current bad actions. You would think that Australian politics had outgrown such immature arguments - but obviously not.

Labor has responded by saying that the increase is excessive, although it has not yet stated that it will support the disallowance motions that have been put forward by the Greens and Democrats in the Senate.

It definitely has not said that, if elected to government, Labor would remove the ability to use the allowance for campaign purposes - there could be a back-bench revolt over that one!

Labor's record on this is weak, as it has consistently supported large increases in the past. For example, in June 2005 Labor supported the Coalition in allowing the massive increase in the postage allowance to go through.

Given the opportunity to disallow the increase on that occasion, Labor conveniently argued that the increase had been determined by the Remuneration Tribunal and that Parliament should not interfere with the tribunal's decisions. This would be a reasonable argument if the tribunal was the sole arbiter of MPs' allowances.

However, Section 5 of the Parliamentary Entitlements Act 1990 allows the government to provide benefits in addition to the tribunal's rulings. In other words - "if the tribunal doesn't provide enough, we'll give ourselves some more".

As the legislation currently stands, MPs' entitlements can be determined by the MPs themselves, with the MPs also deciding what the money can be spent on, and how it is (or more commonly, is not) reported publicly. This is an unsatisfactory state of affairs, both in terms of accountability and the accumulation of incumbency benefits. It also does a disservice to the many parliamentarians who use their entitlements wisely, and for legitimate reasons.

The whole area of parliamentary entitlements needs to be closely examined and brought under a single, independent, decision-making authority. As a minimum, the Government should take action to prohibit parliamentarians from using public money to fund their own election campaigns.

At the moment, incumbent MPs are on the gravy train, and the train is speeding out of control.


Norm Kelly is a member of the Democratic Audit of Australia at the ANU and is a former WA state MP.

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