Give thanks to Bronny

Posted: February 2, 2016 in Ranting
Tags: , ,

I pitched this piece around the traps but nobody wanted it so here ’tis.

bishopFor a while it seemed impossible to watch or read the news without getting another instalment in the Bronwyn Bishop saga. Many of us breathed a sigh of relief when she finally stood down as Speaker of the House of Representatives. But months later, we should give thanks to Bishop for the significant opportunity she has provided us with.

It was matters of expenditure that ultimately proved her undoing. Choppergate, where Bishop chartered a helicopter for the arduous journey from Melbourne to Geelong in order to attend a party fundraiser, was the item that really caught public attention. While Bishop eventually repaid the cost of chartering the helicopter, she never retreated from her position that she was entitled to the expense.0

What passes for rules governing expenditure by our Federal pollies may be found in the Senators and Members’ Entitlements Handbook. But if you bother reading those, two things in particular stand out: i) how little concrete guidance there actually is and ii) the ways around limits e.g. having the Minister of State approve travel expenditure that does not fit within the guidelines.

Central to Bishop’s defense was the argument that she was on government business in the trip to Geelong and therefore allowed to claim the travel. The event itself was a party fundraiser for the Liberal Party. However as Bishop was a key speaker at the event and to talk about government, her argument was that speaking about government made it electoral business and therefore to be met from the public purse. This was of course a nonsense argument – the purpose of the event was to raise funds for the Liberal Party of Australia. That should have been the end of story. The travel guidelines expressly require in the case of chartered transport, that the Member or Senator ‘must pay for any additional cost’ that was above reasonable travel costs. However Bishop was still able to successfully claim the lot, no questions asked.

In the wake of the public outrage over Bishops financial excesses, then-PM Abbott announced a ‘root and branch’ review of entitlements. But all seems to have gone quiet on that front and its future since the change of PM is unclear.

Reviews of entitlements have happened before but little change resulted. They largely tinker rather than try to institute major change and both sides of the House and Senate seem content to ensure no meaningful change occurs. And why would they when they have largely unfettered free access to the public purse?

Besides the problems with the guidelines themselves, there is an even bigger problem with compliance. Essentially the pollies fill out claim forms and the Department of Finance coughs up the readies. The only time we see any questioning items is if they are caught out by the media. But even then the questioning that results is pretty friendly. DoF investigates, asks a few questions then decides if the pollie in question was being naughty or not. And if the pollie repays the item in question, then the slate is wiped clean.

In the worst case, the Secretary of DoF can refer matters to the Australian Federal Police for investigation e.g. for fraud. But it is pretty easy for the pollies to avoid that by just declaring the claim was a mistake. ‘That trip to take possession of my new interstate holiday home? Whoops – how did that get in there?’ ‘What’s that? The public purse paid for the PR jaunt to publicise my new book? Oh dear – my bad.’ Despite the ludicrous nature of claims regularly being brought to our attention, how many of the miscreants have been referred to the AFP? As far as I can tell, none. The Peter Slipper case doesn’t count as it was directly referred to the AFP rather than going through legislated DoF processes.

So what is needed to fix this dodgy approach to personal expenditure being claimed by the pollies?

First, a meaningful review must occur which tears the existing guidelines to pieces, removing the easy outs and providing much greater clarity   and enforceable rules. This needs to be supported by penalties for abuses that are more than the current tokenism.

Secondly, the process requires a meaningful approach to compliance. Having it all contained within a pollie-friendly DoF under a Secretary subject to governmental whim, clearly does not work. Instead an independent audit function is needed, such as a team within the Australian National Audit Office, being funded to perform an audit function.

Within that compliance unit, a forensic audit process can be undertaken, subjecting claims to much harsher scrutiny. Penalties for wrongful claims can be made tougher. But instead of just wiping the slate clean after repayment, repeat offenders should also be subjected to a regime of increasingly harsh penalties. The process would also need to further supported by equally strong penalties for non-cooperation.

Ultimately the audit function should also be required to direct potential fraud to the Australian Federal Police for criminal investigation e.g. pretending government business in town in order to have the public pay for travel to merely attend a mate’s wedding.

We will not see an end to abuses of electoral expenses until such time as there are meaningful processes and consequences put in place. It is up to first the review team to put such things forward and then for our political class to agree to a bi-partisan approach to introduction of the significant changes.

It happens that we should be thanking Bronwyn Bishop for providing not just the impetus for badly needed change, but also for providing such a mixed bag in her electoral expenses that are suited to forensic assessment as a test case.

Naturally I have full confidence that such change shall occur. But now you must excuse me as I need to clean out my flying pig stables.

I am a writer, reviewer and troublemaker. To keep up with my rabble rousing, why not follow this blog as well as Words by Ross and A Writer Goes On A Journey.

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