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Entitlements scandal highlights need to enhance parliamentary integrity

Tony Abbott has faced hard questions in recent days over his travel expenses, but does this reflect a wider integrity problem for our politicians? AAP/Adam Gartrell

The recent revelations around the inappropriate use of travel entitlements by federal MPs reflect a broader problem of the lack of accountability in parliamentarians’ public life.

But this scandal is nothing new. Political watchers might recall former prime minister John Howard’s crackdown on travel rorts in his early years in power. This resulted in a number of ministers losing their portfolios amid righteous promises that the new government was determined to raise the standards of integrity.

There was, however, a predictable dilution of these early high standards of accountability as the Howard years unfolded, culminating in the cynical “Minchin protocols”. These rules enabled breaches of travel rules to be forgiven with the repayment of allowances that were deemed outside the rules.

It must be acknowledged that the present system for MPs’ entitlements is clumsy. Yes, it does have “grey areas” but charging expenses to the public purse for attending friends’ (or colleagues’) weddings or participating in sporting events seem to be well outside any common sense interpretation of “grey areas”.

The present system also does rely on a bevy of public sector departments to manage the approvals. Any system which requires either prior approval for expenses or claiming back funds already expended would be enormously cumbersome for any politician, or public servant, to manage.

What is clear, however, is that the system is not transparent. As a result, parliamentarians are not sufficiently called to account.

Centralising all conduct issues and rule interpretation in one agency - a proposed Office of the Commissioner for Parliamentary Integrity, for instance - together with the public listing of all approvals for travel and similar expenses might go some way to reducing the “grey areas” and making parliamentarians more accountable.

Other integrity ‘rorts’

Two related issues also arise in relation to integrity. First is the politicking around the requirement for parties to submit their proposed pre-election costings for scrutiny by the Parliamentary Budget Office. Releasing budget information a few days before an election when election blackout rules apply is by any standards rorting the system, especially with the increasing tendency of Australians to cast early ballots.

The lack of transparency diminishes accountability of parties and governments for the policies they are promoting.

In recent times, neither of the two major parties have genuinely complied with the spirit of the arrangement. The Coalition’s performance in relation to providing timely and accurate budget data over the past two elections has been particularly lamentable. If conventions fail to achieve the requisite behaviours, perhaps it needs to be ratcheted up to a set of agreed rules and protocols.

Second, the performance of major parties in Question Time has been disrespectful - not only to those on the other side, but more importantly, to the public. Question Time is designed to make governments accountable for their decisions and performance, and to enable oppositions to both criticise government performance and to mount their case as an alternative government.

The agreement between the independents and Labor in 2010 promised a reform of parliamentary procedures, especially those relating to the conduct of Question Time. The agreement was promoted as one of the most significant reforms to parliamentary procedure, with the package of measures likely to strengthen the ability of parliament to hold the executive to account.

However, any hopes for a new paradigm of parliamentary conduct were soon dissipated. The 43rd parliament being described by some in Canberra as one of the most “brutal” and “toxic” in recent memory.

Reform to parliamentary procedure and Question Time was shelved almost as quickly as it was promised. AAP/Lukas Coch

The agreement with the independents also saw other mechanisms introduced to enhance parliamentary integrity, such as the establishment of the Parliamentary Budget Office and the Parliamentary Integrity Commissioner, and the establishment of a Code of Conduct for Members and Senators.

The Office of the Commissioner of Parliamentary Integrity would seem to have stalled but it was intended to have key roles to provide advice on entitlements, ethical issues and uphold a proposed code of conduct.

State of Australian politics

It is a sad reflection on parliamentarians that we have to discuss policing and oversight of their behaviours. What is clear, however, is that previous attempts at enhancing integrity have often faltered, largely because the major parties too often find themselves embarrassed by their lapses in moral conviction.

Perhaps this “club behaviour” can best be broken by sustained efforts by the crossbenches. Fortunately, the new norm seems to be for the government of the day not to carry the numbers in both houses. This presents a huge opportunity for the crossbenches - especially the Greens - to orchestrate sustainable organisational change. This may also include greater potential for effective behavioural change.

A first step would be to revive the flagging Office of Parliamentary Integrity as the “spear-carrier” for accountability reform.

A recent national survey of Australians’ political engagement - conducted by the ANZSOG Institute for Governance at the University of Canberra - makes depressing reading for those looking for a population wired for participation in a lively democracy. Respondents revealed a diminishing personal interest in politics, but significantly they were critical of politicians and generally disillusioned.

Unless there is some change in the behaviour and conduct of parliamentarians, Australia’s confidence in their parliamentary processes will continue to fall.

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