Peering through parliamentary expenses

August 18, 2015

11 August 2015

by Allison Orr

The whole sorry business that has led to the Speaker’s resignation is about more than irregularities in the parliamentary entitlements system. While it puts this obviously flawed system into the spotlight, more significantly it has raised greater questions over trust and accountability in those we elect to govern us. This higher consideration, so crucial to the health of our democracy, demands a more substantial response than the standard review. It calls for radical new ways to restore faith in our institutions.

Our Prime Minister has argued that a politician’s travel claims might fall “inside entitlement but outside community expectations”. And now Tony Burke has said that his family’s trip to Uluru was “beyond community expectations”.

We put trust in our elected representatives to govern and spend our money in our best interest. Defending a politician’s actions by arguing that the rules themselves fall outside community expectations reveals a real disconnect between what politicians think the system should allow for, and what citizens think is appropriate.

Trust in our political institutions is already very low, and incidents like these only serve to further diminish our respect for those who are elected to represent us.

So how are we to address this problem?

There’s one sure fire way to know whether guidelines reflect the views of citizens: we ask them. If we really want politicians’ entitlements to follow community standards, then why not build the system around the community?

A novel approach to fixing this problem could be to set up a citizen jury-type model for reviewing the expenses of politicians. Like the jury system, people could be called up to join a panel of other citizens to review a random but representative sample of expenses claims. The group could meet for a week to have an in depth look at expenses. Any concerns could be relayed to the department of finance for advice or clarification. Experts could be called to give advice if needed. These could be going on all the time; people would not be called up often, and would sit with the panel for a finite period of time.

Given the near-visceral hatred the average taxpayer has for pollies and their entitlements, it would have the double advantage of explaining to citizens what the Members do with this money, most of which is spent in legitimate engagement with the electorate. If questioned, politicians would have an opportunity to explain the purpose of their expenses to a group of citizens directly and rationally, leaving behind the trial-by-media situation that occurs now. It would break down the current disconnect and give ownership of this expenditure to the people. For politicians, expenses scandals would no longer exist.

Of course, all expense claims would still be published, but this system would ensure that they are closely reviewed on a regular basis, and importantly, would not fall outside community standards.

In order to really address what’s at the heart of this problem, this is a much better suggestion than the one currently being put forward. Simply holding a review of the parliamentary entitlements system is a predictable but inadequate response.

Firstly, it’s not that long ago that we had a review of parliamentary entitlements. If we are in need of another, is it because the system has gone off the rails in the last few years, or more likely that these reviews actually do very little to ameliorate the underlying problems?

The 2010 review recommended, among other things, folding electoral allowance and the overseas study travel allowances into salary. According to the committee’s report, “with this benefit cashed out, senators and members would be able to use their salaries to fund overseas travel according to their particular requirements”. This addresses the argument often put forward to reform this system: that we should pay politicians more and cut back on lavish entitlements. The base salary for parliamentarians was raised to $185,000 in March 2012, up from $140,910, a pretty hefty payrise by anyone’s standards (it is now $195,130, considerably more than double the male average wage of $71,171). But this has obviously failed to fix the problem. The system remains, in the words of that last committee “complex, confusing and difficult to understand”.

The second problem is that holding another review doesn’t address the underlying problem: the disconnect between community standards and politicians’ guidelines. Clearly, a different approach is wanted. If these things really do come down to a “sniff test”, then a simple review of the rules isn’t really constructive. What we need is an overhaul of accountability processes for parliamentary entitlements to let the community decide what is on the nose.

Given what’s at stake – trust in our elected representatives and ultimately in our democracy – we need to take bold action. We are already in a time of democratic malaise. Getting citizens actively involved in the accountability process, and giving them a voice in setting the community standards the politicians are supposed to uphold, would go a long way to rebuilding faith in our parliament.

But it’s not good enough in a democracy for rules that govern our elected representatives’ actions can be so unaligned with community standards.