The federal government has strengthened the rules governing parliamentarians’ expenses.
The Special Minister of State, Senator Michael Ronaldson, has announced that from January 1, 2014 MPs whose travel claims need adjustment will pay a 25% penalty on top of the adjustment. Mandatory training will be provided to parliamentarians and their staff if more than one claim needs adjustment within a financial year.
The government has tightened rules on travel entitlements for members’ families. It has also stipulated that overseas travel may not be taken first class. Members’ names may also be tabled in parliament if they do no “substantially comply” within a reasonable time with requests for further information.
The government will also ban MPs from employing relatives in their electorate offices. Those who currently do so have until January 1 to make alternative arrangements.
The changes have been announced just days before the new parliament meets for the first time. They follow several weeks of revelations about claims by MPs. Prime Minister Tony Abbott has repaid over $1,700 in travel and accommodation expenses he claimed for attending the weddings of Sophie Mirabella and Peter Slipper in 2006.
Adam Bandt, acting leader of the Australian Greens, said the government was only acting under pressure and its changes were the “bare minimum”. He called for an Integrity Commissioner and a parliamentary “entitlements adviser”.
Statement from the Special Minister of State, Senator Michael Ronaldson.
STRENGTHENING THE RULES GOVERNING PARLIAMENTARIANS’ BUSINESS EXPENSES
Direct contact between citizens and their elected representatives is an important part of our democracy.
The system of funding the work costs of members and senators in carrying out their responsibilities is complicated by the fact that there is no set job description for the role of a parliamentarian. As independent assessments show, a parliamentarian’s day is routinely long, busy and varied.
These daily activities require administrative support, travel and accommodation for parliamentarians who must balance the demands of attending parliament with spending time in their electorates, servicing the needs of their constituents, travelling between Canberra and the electorate, and generally conducting the business of government and participating in public life.
As the Prime Minister stated recently, the system should work to make parliamentarians more accessible, not chained to their desks and hidden away.
As far as possible, the system should help all parliamentarians to best serve their electors and the Australian community more generally while maintaining public confidence in its integrity and ensuring taxpayers’ money is well spent.
For this reason, the Government will act to strengthen a range of measures to improve public confidence in the system.
In 2009 the former Government commissioned a review of the system of parliamentary entitlements by an independent committee chaired by former senior public servant Ms Barbara Belcher AM.
The Government has considered those recommendations of the Review that were not adopted by the former Government with a view to improving both the transparency and public respect for the system, along with implementing other sensible reforms that will strengthen the system’s integrity.
As part of these reforms, and to help manage their implementation, the Government will put in place a programme of ongoing training for parliamentarians and their staff. This will inform parliamentarians and their staff of changes to the system and help offices put in place best practice systems to ensure community expectations are met and mistakes are minimised.
Improvements to the Department of Finance records management system will be implemented as quickly as possible with a view to highlighting non-standard travel or usage amongst parliamentarians.
Finally, an Implementation Group will be established to advise the Special Minister of State on implementing these reforms and in the development of associated guidelines.
The Government will strengthen the declaration a parliamentarian is required to make when submitting a travel claim.
The new declaration will read: “I declare that this travel was undertaken in my capacity as an elected representative and I acknowledge that a financial loading will be applied if subsequent adjustment to this travel claim is required.”
As part of this reform, the Government will require that if parliamentarians make an adjustment to any claims made after 1 January 2014 they will be required to pay a loading of 25 per cent in addition to the full amount of the adjustment. This will not apply where the adjustment is the result of an error made by the Department of Finance. There will be a grace period of 28 days after making a travel claim in which parliamentarians can make adjustments without penalty.
While adjustments are often paid as the result of administrative error or oversight, this loading will provide an additional incentive to ensure that care is taken when completing travel claims.
From 1 January 2014, mandatory training will be provided for parliamentarians and their offices if more than one incorrect claim is lodged within a financial year.
The new declaration, together with additional guidance, will also be incorporated in the Senators and Members’ Handbook.
The Government will strengthen the arrangements for responding to allegations of usage outside the purposes for which allowances provide.
The Special Minister of State may table in parliament the name of any parliamentarian who fails to substantially comply within a reasonable time with a request for further information as part of a departmental enquiry about an alleged misuse of entitlements. (Recommendation 13(i)).
This measure will improve accountability and transparency within the system.
Under the existing Family Reunion Travel Entitlement, each senator and member may be accompanied or joined by a family member on a total of three business class return inter-state trips each year. These trips may be converted to Canberra or intra-state trips.
Under the current definition of ‘join’ set out in Remuneration Tribunal Determination 2012/04, a family member or designated person has only to spend three hours at the same location as the senator or member to satisfy the requirement that travel be to accompany or join the senator or member.
To minimise the risk that accompanied travel benefits might be misused, the Government will ask the Remuneration Tribunal to review this determination to ensure that a family member who is travelling to accompany or join the senator or member must arrive at a destination no more than 24 hours before the senator or member’s arrival, and depart from a destination no more than 24 hours after the senator or member’s departure (Recommendation 17).
This should ensure that trips are used only for purposes consistent with the original intent of the family reunion travel provisions.
Additional Travel for Children
As the Review Committee notes, an additional travel entitlement is also available for children of senior officers (referred to in Recommendation 25). The Government will move to limit this additional entitlement to dependent children under the age of 18 (from where it currently stands at 25 years old).
Dependent children will still have access to the Family Reunion Travel entitlement.
The Government will act to ensure that provisions for overseas travel as part of a parliamentary delegation are brought into line with the stricter guidelines covering ministerial travel.
In the interests of consistency, delegations will fly at a class no higher than business class. The Prime Minister has directed his ministerial colleagues not to travel at first class expense and this guidance will now be extended for all parliamentarians. (Recommendation 23).
Equally, the current arrangement for ministers is that travel by an accompanying spouse is the exception not the rule. The Review recognised the value of senators and members participating in travel on parliamentary delegation. However, it was not persuaded that there is a continuing justification for the spouse or partner to accompany a parliamentarian at public expense.
Accordingly, the Implementation Group will be asked to review the entitlement for a spouse or partner to travel overseas on parliamentary delegations. The Implementation Group will examine whether when a spouse or partner travels on delegations it should happen at no net expense to the taxpayer.
Travel Allowance for Second Deputy Speaker
In the interests of simplifying the entitlements framework, the Government will also remove the seldom used entitlement to travel allowance for travel connected with the office of second deputy speaker (Recommendation 34).
Stopovers for Parliamentarians and Family
The Government will ask the Remuneration Tribunal to review the entitlement to a one night stopover which is currently available to some Queensland, Western Australian and Northern Territory parliamentarians and family members for travel to and from Canberra.
A stopover should only be required when it can be established that no reasonable connecting flight is available.
EMPLOYMENT OF FAMILY
On taking office, the Prime Minister requested that his ministers not employ immediate family members or partners in their personal office. The Government will now move to limit the practice of employing family members for all parliamentarians.
As the Review Committee noted, employment of family members may not be consistent with good, merit-based employment practices. For that reason, reforms to limit this practice have been enacted in many overseas jurisdictions.
To reduce the risks posed by employing a close family member the Government will prohibit employment of a spouse, partner, parent or child of a senator or member, a child of the spouse or partner of a senator or member, or a son or daughter-in-law of a senator or member within that MP’s own office. A qualified person may be employed in the office of another parliamentarian.
Senators and members will be expected to resolve the situation and will have until 1 January 2014 to change their staffing arrangements.
Media release from Adam Bandt, Australian Greens member for Melbourne.
MPs entitlement crackdown needs enforcer: Bandt
Greens Acting Leader Adam Bandt MP has backed changes to entitlement rules announced today, but says there remains a need for a Integrity Commissioner and an entitlements adviser so MPs are more likely to abide by the rules.
“Putting in place fines will only work if Members of Parliament are clear about the rules to begin with. There remains a need for a parliamentary entitlements adviser who is able to make clear to MPs what’s in and what’s out before expenses are incurred,” Mr Bandt said.
“As Mr Abbott has pointed out, there are always grey areas and without proper oversight and guidance MPs will just be paying fines and nothing will really change.”
“The previous Labor government dragged its heels on putting in place proper oversight and now the Abbott government is only doing the bare minimum in the face of significant public pressure.”