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FINANCE AND PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION LEGISLATION COMMITTEE
FINANCE AND ADMINISTRATION PORTFOLIO
Department of Finance and Administration
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FINANCE AND PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION LEGISLATION COMMITTEE
FINANCE AND ADMINISTRATION PORTFOLIO
Department of Finance and Administration
Senator ROBERT RAY
ACTING CHAIR (Senator Murray)
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FINANCE AND PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION LEGISLATION COMMITTEE
(SENATE-Thursday, 30 May 2002)
- Start of Business
FINANCE AND ADMINISTRATION PORTFOLIO
- Department of Finance and Administration
Australian Electoral Commission
ACTING CHAIR (Senator Lightfoot)
Senator ROBERT RAY
- Senator CONROY
Content WindowFINANCE AND PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION LEGISLATION COMMITTEE - 30/05/2002 - FINANCE AND ADMINISTRATION PORTFOLIO - Department of Finance and Administration
CHAIR —This morning the committee welcomes Senator Abetz, Special Minister of State representing the Minister for Finance and Administration.
Senator Abetz —Thank you, Chair.
CHAIR —We also welcome Dr Watt and officers of the Department of Finance and Administration. I think, colleagues, last night we doing output 2.1, and Senator Conroy was to commence the batting with Employment National. I understand that opposition senators will not be asking any questions of the Commonwealth Grants Commission. I would ask whether Senator Murray or government senators have any questions to ask of the Commonwealth Grants Commission. In that case, Dr Watt, the committee has no questions for the Commonwealth Grants Commission.
Dr Watt —Thank you.
CHAIR —It would seem as though a spill-over day will not be required. I call Senator Conroy.
Senator CONROY —The minister's press release dated 14 May and headed `Employment National' makes reference to a Ferrier Hodgson report. Is the Ferrier Hodgson report available to the committee?
Senator Abetz —Senator, as you know, I do not have personal responsibility in this area. I am happy to take that request on notice and see what Senator Minchin's response is.
Senator CONROY —Either before or after receipt of the Ferrier Hodgson report, did the government give any consideration to keeping Employment National going?
Mr Hodgson —I understand that for some time EN has been supported by the government through injection of capital. It has had ongoing support by the government at least for 12 months or so, and it is 18 months or so since the original JN2 network disaster. Does that answer your question?
Senator CONROY —The question is whether or not it could have been kept going, and it was being kept going with the government's support.
Mr Hodgson —It was being kept going. There was a decision to keep it going, and ongoing funding was being provided.
Dr Watt —It is important to be aware that, over the last 12 months, the government has provided $27 million worth of additional support to EN. So there has been a substantial commitment to keep it going. I think the government has now taken an on balance judgment—it is an on balance one—that the funds that would be needed to keep EN going are no longer justified; that is, in the light of improvements elsewhere in the Job Network and in the light of the fact that those businesses of EN that are viable—and some certainly are—will be spun off for other providers.
Senator CONROY —What was the total value of capital and assets provided by the government to Employment National when it commenced operating?
Dr Watt —We do not have that—
Senator CONROY —Some of these questions are quite specific.
Mr Hodgson —We can provide that information.
—I am happy for you to take that on notice. As I say, quite a few of these questions are very specific; they require specific numbers. If you need to take them on notice, that is fine.
Dr Watt —That one we certainly do need to take on notice; we do not have that information with us.
Senator CONROY —Apart from the price paid by the government for purchases of services from Employment National, what additional capital and operating subsidies have been provided by the government in each of the financial years that Employment National has been operating? As I have said, I am happy for these questions to be taken on notice.
Dr Watt —Can we take that on notice?
Senator CONROY —Yes. As I have said, if these figures are not directly available, I am quite happy for you to take these questions on notice. What was the operating profit or loss before abnormal items and income in each year since Employment National was established?
Dr Watt —Yes, we can get that for you.
Senator CONROY —What are the abnormal items of expenditure in each year since Employment National was established? What was the operating profit or loss before income tax in each year since Employment National was established? What was the income tax expense or benefit attributable to the operating profit or loss in each year since Employment National was established? What was the operating profit or loss after income tax in each year that Employment National has been operating? What were the retained profits or losses at the beginning of each financial year since Employment National began operating? What dividends have been paid to the Commonwealth in each year since Employment National began operating? Did the government commission any study, apart from Ferrier Hodgson, into the most appropriate way of dealing with the assets, liabilities and ongoing businesses of Employment National?
Dr Watt —Certainly not that we are aware of.
Senator CONROY —How many employees of Employment National have a right of re[hyphen]entry to the Australian Public Service?
Mr Hodgson —The number is 129.
Senator CONROY —What are the Australian government's expectations as to its capacity to productively employ those people; are there positions for them to go to?
Dr Watt —That is really more a question for the responsible department. The Minister for Finance is the shareholder minister for Employment National. But, as I understand it, the normal arrangement is that, when public servants return to the APS from elsewhere, it is made a responsibility of the agency that most closely approximates the agency that was in place when they departed. In this case that would be DEWR because that most closely approximates the old Department of Employment, Education and Training. So that would be a question for DEWR rather than for us.
Senator CONROY —Do you know what the government will offer these employees who have the right to return the Australian Public Service redundancy packages if they do not wish to exercise that option?
Mr Dobbie —The 129 employees, or that portion of them who wish to take the redundancy, will have their full rights, and it will be paid by Employment National.
—Do you know what the potential cost of those redundancy packages would be?
Mr Dobbie —Only in that we can estimate what we think the number will be that take the redundancy at the end of the day, and we are not really sure of the number.
Dr Watt —It is also true that the extent of the package in individual cases can vary quite substantially.
Senator CONROY —I was going to ask how many employees have that right, and I think you said all. Perhaps we can double-check.
Dr Watt —I think what we said is that there are 129 former APS employees. There are other Employment National employees. They all have the right to a version; it is a question of whether they exercise it or not. We do not know how many will exercise it. As I understand it, on previous occasions when there have been voluntary redundancies in Employment National, not many employees have chosen to exercise that right. That is my understanding. But how many will this time? We do not know.
Senator CONROY —In this case there will be a whole range of officers who have nowhere to go: the non-129. How many other people are there?
Mr Dobbie —At the end of April there were 609 employees, and so 480 of them would not be in that category.
Senator CONROY —Do they all have the right to a redundancy package; and what are the terms and likely cost of those redundancy packages?
Mr Dobbie —They would have the right to a redundancy package. The terms are as per the offerings made by Employment National.
Senator CONROY —Taking it on notice, is it possible to get a—
Dr Watt —We could take on notice to get you the details of—
Senator CONROY —Please take on notice what the potential cost to Employment National is. All of those people do not have a job or anywhere to go, unless I am misinformed.
Dr Watt —It is said that the government's intention is to see that the viable businesses are sold, and so some of the people will go with that.
Senator CONROY —Some of them may. Each one is entitled to a redundancy package and can take it and walk if they want to.
Dr Watt —That is correct.
Senator CONROY —I am really just trying to look at what the maximum liability is, essentially. I appreciate that it might be complex because some people may have slightly different arrangements, but a reasonable estimate would be appreciated, thank you. What is the annual cost of leases of buildings and equipment that will extend beyond the expiry dates of Employment National's current employment services contracts?
Dr Watt —We will take that on notice.
Senator CONROY —What is the realistic expectation about the attractiveness to potential buyers of Employment National's business so close to the end of the life of its employment service contracts? There is not much value left there really, is there?
—We believe that there is some value in certain aspects of the business. Perhaps the comment you made might be applicable to the job matching activity, but they also engage and perform quite well in some intensive assistance activity, particularly in Western Australia, for example. That can be packaged and sold as a stand-alone unit of the organisation.
Senator CONROY —How much longer does that particular business have of its government contract?
Mr Dobbie —Until 30 June next year. In addition to that, there is some new apprenticeship activity that EN undertakes on behalf of the Department of Education, Science and Training. That is quite an attractive proposition, I would suggest. They perform well in some of the harvest job matching activities, and there are one or two other small pockets of business within the entire EN organisation which we feel will be quiet—
Senator CONROY —Would you be able to identify those again? I am happy for you to take that on notice. You can just give us a list of the ones you think are going concerns. But, with those that even you do not think are going concerns, do you think you have any chance of on-selling them, or will they really just hit the fence?
Mr Hodgson —They are loss-making contracts, which is why EN is being funded. I think there is very little chance of selling them.
Senator CONROY —So, even if they had another five years of contracts making them an attractive potential, there is really not much chance?
Mr Hodgson —Unless the terms of the contracts can be varied there, they are not worth a lot.
Senator CONROY —Excluding the price paid by the taxpayer to purchase employment services from Employment National, how much will the Employment National venture have cost the Australian taxpayer?
Mr Hodgson —The government agreed to put $68.7 million into EN for the JN2 network contracts. The sum of $27 million had already been paid to the end of April 2002, and a further $27 million is required in 2002-03. There remains an amount of $12.7 million to cover possible wind-up of JN2 contracts.
Senator CONROY —So you are saying that there is no extra cost on top of the total of $68.7 million?
Mr Hodgson —Correct.
Senator CONROY —That is the full cost, including redundancies and capital injections and all those sorts of things? There are no other bits?
Mr Hodgson —Our expectation is that those costs will be covered in the $12.7 million.
Senator CONROY —Did the government ever intend to run Employment National as a long-term business? It is hard to see how this model would ever have stacked up.
Mr Hodgson —Certainly my observation in the last year or so is that the government was very serious about trying to get EN running as an ongoing business. A lot of effort was put in; a new chairman was appointed to encourage this. It was unfortunately burdened with some significant loss-making contracts, which made it very difficult to become viable.
Dr Watt —As we said, this is very much an on balance decision by the government. It has made a reasonable effort to keep the thing going, but future viability is hard to find.
Senator ROBERT RAY
—Do you know the circumstances—you were not in the department at the time, Dr Watt—in which a number of board members were not reappointed or were dismissed?
Dr Watt —I do not.
Senator ROBERT RAY —I was wondering whether some acknowledgment could be made that Employment National was doomed, with or without their efforts. They were pretty bruised; they came and gave public service for very little remuneration. They put an enormous effort in and, in that restructuring, their reputations and their feelings were hurt pretty badly. Had EN gone on to be a viable organisation, fine; now that it has not, I think they should be offered some acknowledgment for the hard work they put in. I am not saying that they should be offered an apology. They could not bring Employment National on stream; neither could the new board with the letters of comfort and all the other material support provided by government. We have been through all this at long length in the committee; I do not want to rehash the ground.
Senator CONROY —That completes my questions.
CHAIR —I welcome officers of Ministerial and Parliamentary Services. The committee will now resume its examination of outcome 3, Efficiently functioning parliament, output 3.1, Ministerial and parliamentary services.
Senator ROBERT RAY —I want to ask some questions about an issue I do not know much about. I have seen some reference to it in the papers, but only in passing. The issue is, Minister, a decision I think you made and announced recently regarding Comcar travel by gold pass holders to and from travel. I take it that that entitlement—however you might like to describe it —has not been ever ratified or authorised by the Remuneration Tribunal. Is that right?
Senator Abetz —That is correct. If I may slightly correct you: you indicated I had made a decision; rather there is an intention as of, I think, 30 June but that is subject to feedback. We are currently getting that feedback from the former members. No final decision has been made.
Senator ROBERT RAY —I did say I had only seen reference to it in newspapers, which obviously would not carry the full story. But it has not been subject to—
Senator Abetz —It came out of the audit report.
Senator ROBERT RAY —I understand that, and I was going to get to that. I am getting to the point that at no stage has the Remuneration Tribunal written this in a recommendation as an entitlement.
Senator Abetz —My advice is that no, they have not.
Senator ROBERT RAY —Therefore, I presume—like on some other matters—this has been offered by a previous Special Minister of State. It was not me, was it?
Senator Abetz —No, it was Senator Bolkus.
Senator ROBERT RAY —I thought I would establish that first. I could not remember doing it.
Senator Abetz —That is why you could not remember doing it.
Senator ROBERT RAY
—I did not want to rip in on the issue if I was the perpetrator. You mentioned the audit report, and we asked the Auditor-General about it the other day. In summary, what did the Auditor-General say about it?
Mr Gavin —The Auditor-General in the report made a number of comments, but the one that went to this was simply to draw attention to the fact that the Remuneration Tribunal determination did not provide for car transport and suggested that the department should look into it.
Senator ROBERT RAY —There are some entitlements or benefits granted by the minister and the department that are not covered by the Remuneration Tribunal. I would be right in saying that, wouldn't I?
Mr Gavin —It is different from your day, Senator. There was a decision in 1990 in Brown v. West, and the court ruled that it would be more than wise to anchor every entitlement to senators and members in legislation or in a determination. Indeed, that is what led to the passing of the Parliamentary Entitlements Act 1990. What you said is true, but that is really only in relation to ministers and the act specifically says that the executive can provide entitlements to ministers. In terms of an executive decision for senators and members, there is virtually nothing provided—except within the framework of determinations or the legislation.
Senator ROBERT RAY —Where does that leave the printing allowance for the House of Representatives members?
Mr Gavin —There is a regulation now that covers the printing. To provide for senators and members, except with a legislative basis, runs the risk of flying in the face of the concept of the separation of powers for the executive. The chamber departments—because they are the parliament itself—can provide benefits. For example, until recently the House of Representatives provided a printing allowance of $3,850.
Senator ROBERT RAY —That is good, but we have not got to the heart of this.
Mr Gavin —You have not?
Senator ROBERT RAY —Not by that explanation, no. First of all, if the House of Representatives printing allowance as granted by your department is done by way of regulation, I suppose I can ask the question: why can't the Comcar travel of gold pass holders be dealt with similarly?
Mr Gavin —I do not know that anyone said it can or cannot.
Senator FAULKNER —When did the House of Representatives printing allowance first become subject to regulation?
Mr Gavin —There was a regulation that effectively comprehends the House of Representatives allowance, and that became effective on 1 January this year. I think it was about 1997 or 1998. The Parliamentary Entitlements Act itself has a provision for personalised stationery. Then there was a regulation made in about 1998 which provided for newsletters and personalised stationery, which is usually thought of as the printing allowance. Does that answer the question?
Senator ROBERT RAY —I thought one of the reasons why Comcar for gold pass holders was being challenged was that it was not a proper entitlement. We have established that it has not been given by the Rem Tribunal, so I accept that. I was trying to establish whether, if you wanted to, you could make it a proper entitlement—that is, the same way as you have the printing allowance. That is what I am asking. Or is that not the case?
—The parliament can do anything. A difficulty in fact is with the current legislation. For instance, the Parliamentary Entitlements Act only applies to sitting senators and members, so all the current life gold pass holders would be outside the cover of that act. You could not make a regulation under that act as it stands in order to provide cover for car transport to retirees.
Senator ROBERT RAY —How do former prime ministers qualify, then, for cars? They are former members, not senators.
Mr Gavin —The way that happens is that each incoming prime minister decides on the benefits to be provided to his or her predecessor.
Senator ROBERT RAY —It seems to me the same principle.
Mr Gavin —Not quite. The decision is taken after the person leaves parliament; it is not taken at the time that the person is a sitting senator or member.
Senator ROBERT RAY —Are you saying that it is not within the Remuneration Tribunal and all that process, which we understand?
Mr Gavin —The problem with the Rem Tribunal is that its jurisdiction is only in respect of sitting senators and members.
Senator ROBERT RAY —It does rule on the gold pass, doesn't it? There is a big section in the Rem Tribunal report headed `Life gold pass'.
Mr Gavin —The concept, though, is that the person, a second before they cease to be a member, somehow gets that benefit.
Senator ROBERT RAY —A second before they cease?
Mr Gavin —Perhaps it is a millisecond. The notion is that it is immediately before.
Senator ROBERT RAY —On the same basis, you could immediately before get a right to a Comcar to and from the train or the airport, surely?
Mr Gavin —That is right. That would apply in your case, but it certainly would not apply in the case of all the life gold pass holders who have left the parliament.
Senator ROBERT RAY —Minister, you say—quite correctly—that you have put this out for feedback?
Senator Abetz —Yes.
Senator ROBERT RAY —Do we know what the current cost to the Commonwealth is in an average financial year?
Senator Abetz —In very rough terms, a figure somewhere between $150,000 and $200,000 was indicated to me.
Senator ROBERT RAY —You said $150,000 to $200,000?
Senator Abetz —Yes.
Senator ROBERT RAY —Not even two budgets for the Reps printing allowance to do political propaganda! That is interesting.
Senator Abetz —It is not a large sum.
Senator ROBERT RAY —Is there any suggestion—I have not read any, so I am not saying there is—that this entitlement is being abused?
—If you were to read the popular press or to listen to talkback radio then every single usage of it, irrespective of what it was used for, is an abuse. But nothing has been drawn to my attention that it is abuse in the terms that you and I would understand it.
Mr Gavin —There is no suggestion of abuse. There have been some occasions when people have used it outside what the entitlement is and have simply paid the money back. There has been no suggestion of abuse.
Senator ROBERT RAY —That would apply to any current federal member or senator as well, wouldn't it?
Senator Abetz —Exactly.
Mr Gavin —That is right.
Senator ROBERT RAY —Minister, I am not urging one way or the other—it is a subject I do not know a lot about, so I am just checking—but will you make some sort of determination post July, which will either be to regularise it, to abolish it or to suggest people submit it to the Remuneration Tribunal? I suppose they are your three choices.
Senator Abetz —Yes, they are, once all or a substantial amount of the feedback is in. I can indicate to you I have had a number of letters and phone calls, as you might expect, on this issue.
Senator ROBERT RAY —I just think it is a little illogical to say, `Yes, you can travel by plane, but you can walk to the airport.' I find that a bit strange.
Senator Abetz —I would not argue with that proposition.
Senator ROBERT RAY —We just mentioned the House of Representatives printing allowance. There was an announcement made, by the Prime Minister I think, that there would be rearrangements. Is that right?
Senator Abetz —For the printing allowance?
Senator ROBERT RAY —Yes.
Senator Abetz —After the audit report?
Senator FAULKNER —The cap?
Senator Abetz —That is right.
Senator FAULKNER —I assume, from what Mr Gavin was saying, that the cap is now the subject of a regulation.
Mr Gavin —Yes. I think the minister has written to all senators and members and set it out. There is a cap of $125,000 per annum.
Senator ROBERT RAY —There are 150 House of Representatives members, aren't there? I will do the maths in a little while.
Senator Abetz —There are 148, I think. The secretary does have a handy calculator, which we discussed yesterday.
Senator ROBERT RAY —I'm up to the $15 million before I get to the $125,000! The total is about $19 million.
Senator Abetz —I will take your word for that. That is if everybody uses it to the maximum.
Senator ROBERT RAY —Precisely, and not everyone will. It is capped at $19 million. What is the total MAPS budget less that figure? Do we have an idea?
—The MAPS budget, net of the printing allowance, is $218 million.
Senator ROBERT RAY —Minister, was there any consultation with the opposition over this?
Senator Abetz —There is a good question: not that I am aware of.
Senator ROBERT RAY —Were you aware of an extant agreement that there would be consultation between the government and opposition on this particular matter if it ever came to a decision?
Senator Abetz —I personally was not aware of that, no.
Senator ROBERT RAY —Would you like to check with your senior minister, who should be aware of it?
Senator Abetz —I will do that.
Senator ROBERT RAY —I do not require a further answer on that, but I would ask you to check that for your own knowledge.
Senator Abetz —I think you can be assured, and Senator Faulkner will confirm, that on a number of matters there has been consultation between our offices. But I accept that on this occasion there was not.
Senator ROBERT RAY —You can accept my word that on this particular matter over a long period of time discussions were proceeding. `Guarantee' is too strong a word, but consultation was to occur and to my knowledge it did not occur.
Senator Abetz —I will check up on that, but as far as I am aware there was not and might I say, just speaking as I am here now, that I think it would have made good sense if we had done so.
Senator ROBERT RAY —Just privately, I can give you one or two names that you can check. But I do not want to put that on the public record.
Senator FAULKNER — Now that a cap has been determined, has MAPS done any internal work on whether there will, in fact, be savings? As you know, you provided an answer to a question on notice to me, at least in broad terms, about the number of members who would have exceeded such a cap: four MPs over $300,000; 13 more than $200,000, and so on and so forth. So there are a number of MPs who, on that pattern of spending, will actually have their amount of spending significantly decreased. I think it is fair to say that, isn't it, Mr Gavin?
Mr Gavin —The mathematics are obvious, yes.
Senator FAULKNER —But it is also true to say that the last figures that we have available via the Auditor-General's report show an average spending on the allowance of a little under $38,000. I think that is correct, isn't it?
Mr Gavin —That is right; it is about $38,000 in the Auditor-General's report.
Senator FAULKNER —Obviously there is a comparatively small number of parliamentarians spending a great deal more on an annual basis than previously than would be allowed with the cap. But with the average being significantly lower than the cap, what impact do you think this might have on your budget now that a cap has been put in place? I think Senator Ray has given us the ballpark if every member used the entitlement to its full capacity.
Senator ROBERT RAY —$18.7 million.
—It is too early to speculate, I think.
Senator Abetz —$19 million was pretty close.
Senator FAULKNER —I was not thinking about speculation. I wondered if any serious work had been done by the department, given the new circumstances.
Mr Gavin —It is just too early in the process to start to do that kind of work. But I have to mention to you that the average spending in this financial year would predictably be higher than the figures that Senator Ray mentioned because, of course, it was an election year. So I think we just have to wait and check out a pattern over a period.
Senator FAULKNER —Yes, but the cap applies from what date?
Mr Gavin —From 1 January this year.
Senator FAULKNER —The cap is going to apply to spending in a calendar year, isn't it?
Mr Gavin —No, it is a financial year and it is—
Senator Abetz —It is pro rataed.
Mr Gavin —pro rataed to about $68,000 for this period from 1 January to 30 June.
Senator FAULKNER —What would be your expectations for the second part of the financial year 2001-02—the last six months of the financial year—in relation to spending? This is effectively the first six months of a political cycle, isn't it?
Mr Gavin —Yes.
Senator FAULKNER —But no thought has been given to this?
Mr Gavin —Yes, thought has been given to it, but it is just too early. The first six months of a political cycle you would expect the spending to be lower than in the last six months, for instance.
Senator FAULKNER —I would have, and that is what I was wondering.
Mr Gavin —But I do not know.
Senator ROBERT RAY —Is there any allowance for rolling over unspent money?
Mr Gavin —No.
Senator ROBERT RAY —Minister, can you tell us now that this will not be a ruling in two years time when certain members of the House of Representatives, both Labor and Liberal, blow it all and then come crawling back to you or your successor, saying, `What are we going to do for the rest of the year?' You need to impose some discipline at this stage to say, `This is the allowance and that is that'?
Senator Abetz —I do not think there will be such a move, but who can look into the future? I do know that it has been accepted that, after an election, you can draw down on your postage or communications allowance out of the next year to supplement, but I do not think there is any intention to allow that to occur in relation to the printing allowance.
Senator ROBERT RAY —It is enough to say that at this stage because, then, at least if people do approach you and you do not want to do it, you have a defence, saying you ruled—
Senator Abetz —I have not ruled.
Senator ROBERT RAY —No, not ruled, but indicated this way—
Senator Abetz —Yes.
Senator ROBERT RAY —to the august Senate estimates committee. Very good.
Senator FAULKNER —Dr Watt, when the Auditor-General brought down his report on these and related matters, were you satisfied that the Auditor-General worked very hard to ensure that individual members of parliament—individual cases—were not highlighted; that he tried to deal with issues in a systematic way, if you like?
Dr Watt —I have to defer to my colleagues on that.
Ms Mason —The answer to your question is yes. The report that was published does not specifically identify individual senators or members. However, there has been media coverage and naming of certain people in the media.
Senator FAULKNER —Yes, I am aware of that, but I am asking about whether the department is satisfied that the ANAO took all appropriate care and responsibility to ensure that no individual names of usage of entitlements by members was made public? It seemed to me to be the case, but I just wanted to be clear.
Ms Mason —Certainly, there were no names included in the audit report.
Dr Watt —Were you asking in terms of what was published or the Auditor-General's methodology of handling these issues while the investigation was under way or both?
Senator FAULKNER —I am talking about what was published by the Auditor-General.
Ms Mason —In the published material there were no names mentioned. In the course of the fieldwork, there were particular cases examined by the Auditor-General in order to come to conclusions.
Senator FAULKNER —I think you could assure the committee that if the Auditor-General did not examine particular cases in terms of his methodology then the report would have been less than adequate. That would be true, wouldn't it? We would need to do that.
Dr Watt —That was not the point I was making. Certainly the Auditor-General had to look at individual cases; otherwise the report would not have been conclusive. I thought you were asking a quite different question, which ran along the lines of what safeguards were undertaken during the stage of the audit process to ensure that the identities of the cases examined were protected. That is a different question.
Senator FAULKNER —Let us talk about safeguards. What safeguards are you aware of?
Dr Watt —I think that really is a matter for the Auditor-General.
Senator FAULKNER —Yes—but as far as the department is concerned?
Ms Mason —As far as the department is concerned, we asked that the Audit Office treat any material that we supplied to them as confidential, and as far as we are aware they did so.
Senator ROBERT RAY —If one wanted to know how much a particular member of the House of Representatives spent on printing allowance, that knowledge is contained in which section of MAPS?
Ms Mason —The service centre.
Senator ROBERT RAY —Is it then accessible by any other section of your unit?
Ms Mason —It may from time to time be accessible, for instance, by the account management unit within the group.
Senator ROBERT RAY —Was that information transmitted anywhere outside your department?
—I think that is a question I would need to take on notice and check with my colleagues.
Senator ROBERT RAY —I think it is an important question to be answered at this stage if it can be, because we had a situation where information reached the press in a very selective way and was used politically. I need to know where this information resides so I can at least start to narrow down where it leaked from.
Ms Mason —The information resides in the service centre.
Senator ROBERT RAY —But you do not know of it going outside there anywhere?
Ms Mason —I would need to check that before giving a proper answer.
Senator ROBERT RAY —You acknowledge that the information leaked out?
Ms Mason —No. I simply said that, in order to give a proper answer to your question, I would need to make inquiries.
Senator ROBERT RAY —I did not say it leaked out from that section; sorry. You misinterpreted me. It was not by osmosis that the information regarding one member of parliament reached the press, was it? It was given to them by someone who had the information.
Ms Mason —I do not think I can speculate on an answer to that question.
Senator ROBERT RAY —Minister, can you assure us it was not your office that put that information out to the media on Mr Horne?
Senator Abetz —He was the former member for Paterson. I will check up on that and get back to you, but I understand there were a number of requests made after the audit report came out in relation to information in that audit report. I will take that on notice.
Senator ROBERT RAY —You are saying there were requests made to your office and probably to the department?
Senator Abetz —As I understand, yes, but I want to check to make sure that it is absolutely clear.
Senator FAULKNER —Were any requests made of the department at the time of the tabling of the Auditor-General's report for information about individual members or senators—just to help us narrow this down?
Senator Abetz —We will take that on notice.
Senator FAULKNER —I think the department should be able to answer that.
Senator ROBERT RAY —We do not know yet; they are still checking.
Senator FAULKNER —We will just see.
Senator Abetz —We will take that on notice.
Senator ROBERT RAY —How seriously would you take it, Minister, if you found that one of your staff members had conveyed this confidential information to the press without your authority?
Senator Abetz —That is a hypothetical question.
Senator ROBERT RAY —Do you take those issues seriously?
Senator Abetz —It is hypothetical; it is not a matter that I need to address.
Senator ROBERT RAY —But you will make inquiries?
—I have already taken the question on notice.
Senator FAULKNER —Can the departmental officers at the table indicate to us whether this information about the use of House of Representatives printing entitlement was provided to the minister's office?
Senator Abetz —What is provided to the minister's office by the department is not something that is normally canvassed.
Senator FAULKNER —I am terribly sorry, Minister, but it is normally canvassed. This is just a process issue.
Senator Abetz —It is canvassed and it is trawled—I accept that—but what information passes between the two is not something that—
Senator ROBERT RAY —It would be very handy if we knew that it had not gone to your office, so that we could eliminate a suspect.
Senator Abetz —Then you can try eliminating all sorts of other people by the same process in other areas as well.
Senator ROBERT RAY —I do not think so in this case.
Senator Abetz —That is why I will not set a precedent here.
Senator ROBERT RAY —Do you recall, Mr Gavin, that Senator Faulkner put a question on notice some years ago on this subject?
Mr Gavin —I do not deny; I do not recall.
Senator ROBERT RAY —You do not recall the fact that it was not answered for an extraordinary period?
Mr Gavin —I recall the question.
Senator ROBERT RAY —Do you then recall that Senator Faulkner withdrew the question?
Mr Gavin —I recall that it was a long time before he did.
Senator ROBERT RAY —Yes, but it was before an answer was provided. For the financial years 1996-97, 1997-98 and 1998-99, what was the expenditure on the printing allowance for the members for Swan, Stirling, Cowan and Canning? You will need to take that on notice.
Mr Gavin —Yes.
Senator ROBERT RAY —Do you understand I have limited the question, Minister?
Senator Abetz —It is of special interest to Western Australia, but I accept that.
Senator ROBERT RAY —We will have a skirmish, not a war. Is there any thought of giving senators an increased printing allowance?
Senator Abetz —I do not think it is on the agenda at this stage.
Senator ROBERT RAY —So, on those various occasions when House of Representatives members point out how expensive it is to run the Senate, we can say that this is one area where we are economising.
Senator Abetz —Sorry?
Senator ROBERT RAY —You probably would have been subject to it yourself, Minister. Often, House of Representatives members complain about the cost of running the Senate. Here is one area where we are far more frugal.
—We are very frugal in that area.
Senator ROBERT RAY —That is exactly right.
Senator Abetz —Is it 5,000 A4 sheets, or something like that?
Senator ROBERT RAY —I have used it on two occasions over the 21 years. It is a very good printing service downstairs. That is all on that area. I do not want to have a broad discussion on this but I want to ask the minister, and MAPS in particular, what approaches were made to the department to check Comcar records in the immediate period following Senator Heffernan's speech in the chamber re a High Court judge? Could I have some sort of indication as to whether any requests were made? Obviously I am not talking about FOI, because you are not entitled to comment on that. Were requests made from any source—government, opposition, or otherwise or individual senators—for a search of Comcar records with regard to this matter?
Senator Abetz —We will need Comcar to come to the table, and Ken Sweeney is here. As I recall—and Mr Sweeney may well correct me—Senator Heffernan gave his speech, and there was the 1994 alleged docket on the front page of a Sunday newspaper.
Dr Watt —A Sydney Sunday newspaper.
Senator Abetz —Mr Sweeney can answer from here, but I understand that Comcar initiated an inquiry.
Ms Mason —Senator, would you mind repeating the question?
Senator ROBERT RAY —I am not interested in the prehistory of this—that is, meetings with Dr Boxall, FOI requests and all the rest—but following Senator Heffernan's speech in the chamber, I am just asking, was your department or Comcar requested by anyone to check the records going back to that period? It may well be that the answer is you initiated an inquiry yourself. That is good—I just want to know.
Ms Mason —Both are true. We initiated our own inquiries and started taking a look at it after the 12 March speech.
Senator ROBERT RAY —After the 12 March speech?
Ms Mason —We certainly undertook inquiries before that time.
Senator ROBERT RAY —What inquiries did you undertake before that time, excluding FOI requests?
Ms Mason —Excluding FOI requests, none.
Senator ROBERT RAY —That is what I thought. We can forget that period, because an independent FOI officer deals with these matters. We do not seek to second-guess or challenge that here. Can anyone remind me—I do not have it with me—what the date was when the Comcar docket appeared in the Sunday paper?
Ms Mason —It was 17 March.
Senator ROBERT RAY —Was there anything happening from 12 March to 17 March?
Ms Mason —Yes. When I became aware of Senator Heffernan's statement in the parliament, I sought to review documents and have people take a look at the history of the matter, because clearly it was an important and sensitive one.
Senator ROBERT RAY —That is good behaviour.
Senator FAULKNER —Did you take that initiative yourself?
—Yes, I did.
Senator ROBERT RAY —You started that process sometime after the 12th?
Ms Mason —On the 13th, in fact.
Dr Watt —Very early on the 13th.
Senator Abetz —And the speech, you will recall, I think was on the adjournment, late on the 12th.
Senator ROBERT RAY —No, it was not on the adjournment; it was on the address in reply.
Senator Abetz —Late in the evening, nevertheless.
Senator ROBERT RAY —I think it was on a no-divisions, no-quorum night.
Senator Abetz —Yes, but late in the evening of the 12th.
Senator ROBERT RAY —Yes.
Senator FAULKNER —So it meant that you had more time to deliver on that job.
Senator Abetz —What I am trying to point out is that as soon as MAPS became aware of it, they of their own volition, early on the 13th—
Senator ROBERT RAY —Minister, if any of these officers had been monitoring the address-in-reply that night, we would not want them sitting at the table, would we? It was very good that they did it the next morning. They would not have a life if they were watching the address-in-reply. You started your inquiries—what was the nature of those inquiries? How did you approach them?
Ms Mason —Basically to seek the relevant files—the FOI files that related to previous requests and investigations of this matter—and to try and bring myself up to speed with what had gone before.
Senator ROBERT RAY —Were those inquiries completed before the alleged Comcar docket appeared on the front page of a newspaper?
Ms Mason —It is a difficult question to answer. Probably the answer is no. The inquiries were ongoing and took account of media coverage of the issue, so we continued to inquire.
Senator ROBERT RAY —Did the appearance on the front page of a facsimile of this document assist you in your inquiries to be able to be more specific?
Ms Mason —Yes, indeed it did. I read the newspaper on that Sunday morning and immediately went into the office to make further inquiries in relation to that document, which was one that we had not seen before it was published in Sun Herald newspaper.
Senator ROBERT RAY —Those events then moved very quickly on the Monday, as I understand and recall. Were you able to come to any conclusive view on the authenticity of that facsimile of the document?
Ms Mason —It probably took us around an hour to form a view that the document that was published in the Sun Herald newspaper did not appear to be an authentic Comcar record.
Senator ROBERT RAY —What led you to that conclusion? Was it the content or the layout?
—It was the content. There were a number of aspects of the published document that caused us to consider that it was probably not authentic: the registration number was one that did not appear to have existed for some years after 1994; the shift number quoted was wrong; and they were jobs of a nature that would not normally be expected to occur on an Easter Saturday. Perhaps my colleague Ken Sweeney can assist further with other aspects of that conclusion.
Mr Sweeney —In addition to the points raised by Ms Mason, we would not have expected a Comcar driver to have worked the hours specified in the media article. That was a very long shift, from recollection.
Senator ROBERT RAY —Would it have been subject to double time being Easter Saturday?
Mr Sweeney —I would have to take that on notice.
Senator ROBERT RAY —Don't—that is not worth taking on notice.
Mr Sweeney —It was certainly a period of time which exceeded normal hours, and it was on a Saturday so it would have been subject to some penalty arrangements at that time. The shift number was wrong, as Ms Mason pointed out, and there was a suggestion that the stationery that appeared may not have been in use at the time.
Senator FAULKNER —On what Ms Mason said, that sounds like good work in MAPS to establish that fairly quickly.
Mr Sweeney —That is correct.
Senator FAULKNER —Was a formal report prepared on that, effectively summarising those concerns and inconsistencies?
Ms Mason —A briefing on those matters was supplied to the minister's office.
Senator ROBERT RAY —Was that on the Sunday or the Monday?
Ms Mason —Sunday.
Senator FAULKNER —To Minister Abetz?
Ms Mason —To the office of the Special Minister of State.
Senator ROBERT RAY —It is one and the same to us.
Ms Mason —I am just trying to be precise.
Senator ROBERT RAY —For our information, just how good are Comcar records going back over a number of years? This is not in relation to this, particularly, but let us say either Senator Abetz or I were accused of misusing a Comcar 10 years ago. Would we be able to ask you to provide us with a record so we could check it? Is it that easy or are they only kept for a certain amount of time?
Senator Abetz —I would say not 10 years, because I think they are destroyed under the Archives Act 1983 after a length of time.
Senator ROBERT RAY —I am just asking how far back they are kept.
—The Archives Act certainly comes into play, and we abide by the minimum requirements under that. It is fair to say that across Australia the records are held in some ways dependent upon the storage capability at the depot. For example, in a large depot with a large number of transactions, like Sydney, we would be seeking to ensure that we optimised the storage there and that we kept records for the minimum period of time. In other depots, where we have more storage available, it may well be that the records could go back further than they do in, say, Sydney. To answer your question: if we have any inquiries we certainly pursue them through the normal channels and we would go back through the depot records, followed by any archival action that may have occurred.
Senator ROBERT RAY —Coming out of this whole saga, is there a need to reinforce with Comcar drivers that they must behave in a professional way with their clients and not necessarily interact with them by supplying them with documents of whatever nature? I do not ask you to judge on this particular case, but is it reinforced in training now? That needs to be stressed.
Senator Abetz —Mr Sweeney has put some practices in place which I think you may find of interest as a result of this.
Senator ROBERT RAY —I would.
Mr Sweeney —Specifically following on from the events that occurred, I instituted a new set of arrangements which commenced from the beginning of April this year, whereby the drivers' job records are now an accountable document. This policy advice document was issued to all Comcar employees at the beginning of April. It changed the arrangements whereby documents that were in existence were to be destroyed immediately, under supervision; that is, the stationery that had previously been used for drivers' job records were all destroyed. We instituted a new set of arrangements whereby drivers would be issued with, and sign for, a new pad of job sheets printed with sequential numbering and a state identification number; thereby, if we were to ever see again—in the public arena or anywhere else—a document purporting to be a job record, we could immediately identify whether it was indeed an authentic document.
Senator FAULKNER —And you have effectively destroyed all the unused stationery. Is that the way it works?
Mr Sweeney —The instruction that has been given is that all of those previous forms—the blank ones that were in existence—were to be destroyed. I have been given that assurance, yes. As far as confidentiality goes, I could add for the benefit of the senator that the recruitment process that is undertaken is quite rigorous. For example, we now follow a process whereby, at the information sessions that are provided as part of the recruitment process, all potential recruits are made aware of the confidentiality and security aspects of their potential employment. In addition to that, at the point of applying for a position, individuals are made aware that they must sign a confidentiality and security clearance form.
Further to that, at the point of being recruited individuals are asked to sign, as an employee, a determination which covers the Public Service regulations about the duty not to disclose information, and the Commonwealth Crimes Act 1914 is also made clear to them. That excerpt also includes reference to the penalties which could include two years imprisonment for contravention. Further to that, upon engagement, in the letter of offer all drivers would be asked again to sign off on—in addition to things such as a character clearance and health assessment—a security and proof of identity document.
At the point of induction—and these sessions are run by Comcar employees—the APS code of conduct is made quite clear to them, and the confidentiality aspects of their employment are also emphasised. Further to that there is an operating instruction. All drivers are made aware, through the drivers manual, that a very important provision is the confidentiality and discretion section of that document, and it speaks about conversations with customers, approaches by the media, providing information about passengers and providing information about Comcar staff. All of those aspects are made quite clear to all new recruits.
Senator MURRAY —What about casual and hire car drivers?
—The Comcar casual drivers are all covered by the provisions that I just outlined. The hire car operators are covered by a separate set of provisions. But, under their deed of offer that they sign, they are also signing the confidentiality disclosure provisions.
Senator ROBERT RAY —When did you receive the report on the 1994 incident? I mean you, yourself, because you may have been elsewhere.
Senator Abetz —The one from Jan Mason?
Senator ROBERT RAY —Yes.
Senator Abetz —I would have to check it, but I think it was on the Monday afternoon.
Senator FAULKNER —By the way, it sounds like it was a quick and thorough response from MAPS in dealing with those matters. Much of it, I suspect, was done on the weekend. Is that right, Ms Mason?
Ms Mason —Yes.
Senator Abetz —I have just been reminded that it was, in fact, a long weekend in the ACT. It was Canberra Day.
Senator FAULKNER —You are jealous of that when you come from Sydney. Ms Mason, that report was provided to the minister's office on the Sunday afternoon?
Ms Mason —It was around lunchtime on Sunday.
Senator FAULKNER —What is the next involvement that MAPS had in relation to this issue, if any?
Mr Sweeney —At the request of the general manager, Ms Mason, we had the electronic records for the period surrounding the document that appeared in the newspaper of 17 March. We had the electronic records in Comcar checked that afternoon to see whether we could verify any of the transactions that appeared in the newspaper. In addition to that, on Monday, 18 March we sent a senior officer to Sydney to examine the storage room and records that were available in the Sydney depot covering, again, the subject period around the article that appeared in the newspaper.
Senator FAULKNER —Were either of the examinations of electronic records or any outcomes of the Sydney visit reported by MAPS elsewhere?
Ms Mason —Is it possible for us to check that in the background and return to that question rather than delay the committee?
Senator FAULKNER —Yes. Is there any other involvement, with the possible exception of that, that MAPS had in the aftermath of the publication in the Sun Herald newspaper of the false documentation?
Ms Mason —I think Dr Watt yesterday gave evidence in relation to some conversations that took place with officials of the High Court and some correspondence that passed between the department and the High Court in relation to the matter. In addition to that, on various occasions we provided written briefing or other information to the minister's office to ensure that the minister was briefed on the matter.
Dr Watt —And as the issue unfolded through Monday and Tuesday.
—Minister, there does appear to be an inconsistency: you are happy to take on notice a question from Senator Ray about advice going from the department—from MAPS in this instance—to your office and one about when you personally received advice from the department, but you are unwilling to answer very similar questions about advice on printing allowance.
Senator Abetz —I am not sure of the exact point you are making. There are some differences there, and from time to time it is appropriate to give out some information and at other times it is not. They are decisions—
Senator FAULKNER —The point I am making is quite simple. It may suit you or not be of particular concern to you to provide information in relation to this matter, but it does not suit you to provide information about printing allowance when members of your own staff are leaking this confidential material in the gallery. That is the point I am making.
Senator Abetz —That is your allegation, and you can make it. That is fine.
Senator ROBERT RAY —I did say that I was finished with the printing allowance, but I had better move back to it because I did overlook one area. Now that you have determined that each member will have a certain amount, what sort of auditing is going to go on to make sure that money is spent properly? I do not make an allegation.
Senator Abetz —That the people are getting value for money?
Senator ROBERT RAY —No, not just value for money. How do you ensure that they are not doing contra deals with printers? The scam works this way: `Load up the bill, and in an election period give them how-to-vote cards for nothing.' That has certain illegalities associated with it, because you would have to declare it under the Commonwealth Electoral Act and you might have to declare it in your pecuniary interests register. You must be aware that, whilst that may not be a practice and may never have been done, it is always a potentiality. How do you audit this process to make sure that you are getting value for money and that there are no contra deals et cetera?
Senator Abetz —That is a good question; I do not know whether we have a process in place. I do know that, in relation to another allowance, that allegation has been made.
Dr Watt —We would be happy to provide information on the auditing process.
Senator ROBERT RAY —I thought this would have been thought about, because you made a determination in January and set a limit to it—and some people would regard that as commendable. I thought that, now that you are regularising this, you may have given thought to how you audit the way the expenditure is being made.
Senator Abetz —But nothing has changed in that regard. Whilst it was uncapped, a member who was so minded could still go to his printer and, as you mentioned, say, `Load the bills up for me.'
Senator ROBERT RAY —I had the same concerns then as I do today.
Senator Abetz —But the capping of it, of itself, does not lead to this potential problem.
Senator ROBERT RAY —No, not at all. It is just that I thought that, if you were doing one area, you might go out and do the lot.
Senator Abetz —That is a fair suggestion, and the department will look at it.
Ms Mason —The department has a program of audits. This issue has not been specifically included on the audit program but, given your comments, that is something we can take into account.
Senator ROBERT RAY
—I think it should be. You do not need to do many audits—just say you are going to do them randomly. No-one will know. It is like a red-light camera: they are only in one in thirty things, but we do not go through red lights because we see them there.
Senator Abetz —Is that what makes you stop at red lights?
Senator ROBERT RAY —I do not often stop at them, actually. I find that, if you go fast enough through them, they cannot photograph you. Sorry, Senator `Leadfoot'! I did not mean to—
Senator LIGHTFOOT —I am known for doing the same thing, Senator Ray.
Senator ROBERT RAY —I did not realise you were in the room; I would not have been so flippant if I did! All right, that is all on printing.
Dr Watt —Could I come back to one point you made in the preamble to your question to Ms Mason. You said that you were not interested in meetings with Dr Boxall. I should put on the record that there were no meetings between those seeking FOI information on Justice Kirby—either Senator Heffernan or Mr Whittaker—with Dr Boxall. That is clear from our records. Dr Boxall is very clear on that point as well.
Senator ROBERT RAY —I was not trying to infer anything other than that I was not interested in that area.
Senator Abetz —Good.
Dr Watt —I am sure you were not, but there has been some information circulating that said there were meetings.
Senator ROBERT RAY —It was in the press, yes.
Dr Watt —That information is incorrect.
Senator ROBERT RAY —Okay, that is good. I have a very small question on the software allowance that members of parliament have. We seem to go through this process every year. This year there was a change. As I understand it, members and senators can use a $1,000 software allowance for upgrades. That happened on this occasion and the member/senator was refunded. This time they were refunded not $1,000, but $909—which I just took on the chin and did not worry about. But then $91 was also put in my account, so I was wondering what was going on here. I assume GST is in there somewhere, but I just do not know where it all fits.
Senator Abetz —That is a very good question. I was not aware of that. I will have to check my records now.
Senator ROBERT RAY —I think you should.
Senator Abetz —I thought I got a $1,000 cheque returned, but you are saying that it may have come in two lots.
Senator ROBERT RAY —I think there may have been a change of mind. I am just wondering what happened, that is all.
Mr Gavin —The adjustment that occurred resulted from advice from the tax office. There was uncertainty when the GST was introduced as to how to apply it to this allowance. We got advice from the tax office and the adjustment—the additional $91—was sent to you.
Senator ROBERT RAY —You got this advice after you deducted it?
Mr Gavin —That is right; it took some time to resolve.
Senator ROBERT RAY
—Some of these other members that got a $1,000 refund—was that because they had asked for it later than I did? Probably.
Senator Abetz —You must have paid earlier.
Senator ROBERT RAY —They probably did not pay it over themselves. It is not, in fact, an act of desperation here: it is the time in which you pay for the services.
Mr Gavin —The issue, actually—interestingly—turns on the fact, as you know, that the PAYE legislation specifically says that, even though senators and members are not employees, for the purposes of the legislation they will be treated as employees. But that was not clear for some months in relation to the GST.
Senator ROBERT RAY —All right. It is no big deal. I just wanted to know.
Mr Gavin —No—that is how it worked.
Senator ROBERT RAY —So we are very clear what we are going to do into the future? There are no problems now?
Mr Gavin —That issue has been resolved.
Senator ROBERT RAY —Okay, fair enough.
ACTING CHAIR (Senator Murray) —If you have left that topic, I have a quick question to the minister. Minister, last time we were here we had an engaging interaction about the possibility of generating a questionnaire from your side through to us for us to interact on how we can develop better understanding.
Senator Abetz —I thought more a discussion paper as opposed to a questionnaire, but yes.
ACTING CHAIR —Can you just update us with the progress on that.
Senator Abetz —Yes, it is in my office and I am trying to digest it and consider it.
ACTING CHAIR —Will it be out before the end of the financial year?
Senator Abetz —Yes, I would hope so.
Senator FAULKNER —I want to go to an issue that we canvassed on 19 February, some matters that I raised in relation to travel allowance for staff during the 2001 election campaign. I want to take you back to a matter I placed on notice. I think it is on page 174 of the Hansard. I should know the page number, but the pagination here has been scrubbed off—I am pretty sure it is page 174. Are you aware, Ms Mason, of the question?
Ms Mason —I believe it relates to travel to Melbourne. Is that correct?
Senator FAULKNER —It has been interpreted that way. The committee was provided an answer to this question on 5 April this year. It is question F19, if I can focus your attention, which is in a different form of course to what I asked. It is in this form:
Can you confirm that staff working at the Liberal Party headquarters in Melbourne during the election campaign did claim TA?
It goes on with seven subsections of the question. The answer that has been provided is:
From the information available the Department is unable to determine who was or was not working at the Liberal Party headquarters in Melbourne.
But if I actually take you back to the Hansard that I referred to, I do not think I made such a qualification. On page 174 of the Hansard, my question says:
With reference to travel undertaken between 5 October 2001—the date of the calling of the last federal election—and 11 November 2001, which of course was the day after the election, by staff employed by government members or senators, I would like to know in each instance—
And the detail of those seven parts is there. I was interested in the first instance how such a reinterpretation of my question could have occurred from the time of the estimates to the answer that I received. I assume that the reinterpretation, to some extent, might have governed the response I got. You know I am not into conspiracy theories; I just want to understand what has occurred.
Ms Mason —I am advised that the questions were confirmed with the committee, and the question that was answered was the question that was confirmed.
Senator Abetz —I have just been handed page 244 of the Hansard for F&PA. I assume it is you talking, because I do not have the previous page, and it is a continuation—
Senator FAULKNER —I think it is page 174.
Senator Abetz —Yes, it is. I have just had that confirmed. It says:
I believe the situation is that not one Labor Party staffer claimed TA but a very significant number of staff, if not all staff, working at the Liberal Party headquarters did claim TA. With reference to travel undertaken between 5 October 2001—the date of the calling of the last federal election—and 11 November 2001, which of course was the day after the election, by staff employed by government members or senators, I would like to know in each instance: the name of the staff member and the member or senator for whom they worked; the dates and locations for which TA was claimed—
And it goes on. So you did provide the introduction of people working at Liberal Party headquarters.
Senator FAULKNER —There were many hours of discussion at the estimates committee on a whole range of matters beforehand. I am not going to get bogged down on this.
Senator Abetz —This was right before you asked all the questions.
Senator ROBERT RAY —The question mark does not refer to that, but that's semantics. You can argue both ways.
Senator Abetz —I am sure the committee and the department, for whatever reason, understood your question in the light that it has been repeated.
Senator ROBERT RAY —On most occasions and especially in the history of this department, if there is any confusion they ring us up and ask us. I have been rung on several occasions by the department of finance officials saying, `What precisely did you mean by that question?'
Senator Abetz —We have just been told that the department rang the secretariat of the committee, so possibly in the future we can—
Senator FAULKNER —I have been rung by the department. At times I have even been asked by a minister. You asked me about a question not so long ago yourself, Senator Abetz.
Senator Abetz —Indeed, as I understand it—I have just been advised; this may be wrong—the committee provides the questions for the department to answer. So any reinterpretation of the question was not done on this side of the table.
Ms Mason —Senator, it is true that if we do not understand a question, we seek to clarify it. In this case, we thought the question was clear and we answered it as well as we could.
Senator ROBERT RAY —My experience of this section of the department is that they have always rung up, if they are confused, asking, `Precisely what do you mean?'
—Given the prelude that that statement was made right before the questions were asked, whoever drafted the question ran the two together.
Senator FAULKNER —I cannot answer that question. I can only say this: I was not consulted by anyone. Hence, I cannot shed any light on that particular issue.
Senator ROBERT RAY —Your office might have been.
Senator FAULKNER —No, my office was not, Senator Ray. My office assured me that they were not. Anyway, what I would like to know is: given that the question was asked in this form, what work was undertaken at the departmental level to answer it? It does not matter. Moving along, when the question was asked, what efforts were put in at MAPS to answer the questions?
Dr Watt —Senator, I think we can shed a bit of light on this if you have a moment.
Ms Whisker —Senator Faulkner, I cannot remember the date, but I did speak to you about this particular question. Perhaps you did not understand what I was getting at, but I rang to clarify.
Senator FAULKNER —I certainly had a conversation with you about a question. I had a conversation with Senator Abetz about a question. It was a different question, as I understood. Senator Abetz himself raised the same matter with me.
Senator Abetz —Not this one.
Senator FAULKNER —I know. My understanding is that Senator Abetz and you were talking about a different question.
Senator Abetz —Yes.
Ms Whisker —Sorry, I was talking about this particular question; we must have misunderstood.
Senator FAULKNER —As I understand it, Ms Whisker, you and Senator Abetz were talking about a different question. I will try to sort that out with you, because I think we were at cross-purposes there. Let us try to take it back a step or two. What did the department do when the question was put on notice at the estimates hearing to try to develop an answer to it?
Ms Whisker —We looked at the question and I think our interpretation was that you were asking questions about staffers who were working out of the secretariat. I cannot remember fully, but we did pull out information on travel allowance for staff who were working in Melbourne, and we did start to look at the travel. Then, in looking at that, we were thinking, `Well, we really do not know who we are looking at,' because we were not aware who was working out of the secretariat as against other people who were visiting Melbourne.
Senator FAULKNER —Let us go back a step further before that. Had the department done any work in relation to reporting on the use of TA in the election campaign in the broad—this is before my question. Sure, you took certain action in response to my question. I am now going back a step and trying to understand, prior to that, whether there had been any work done at a departmental level in relation to TA claims in the federal election period.
Ms Whisker —There would have been, during the election period, only in terms of paying TA and the method we were undertaking to pay TA.
Senator FAULKNER —Is that all?
Ms Whisker —It is all I can recollect.
Senator FAULKNER —Who undertook that work?
—The particular officers who were responsible for paying TA.
Senator FAULKNER —And what did they do?
Ms Whisker —It was the nature of the method of the bills being paid. In some cases where staff were staying at hotels, we had an agreement with particular hotels so that, instead of every staffer having to turn up at the rush hour in the first part of the morning as they were leaving, there could be bulk bills. So it was a process of listing those staff that were part of that arrangement.
Senator FAULKNER —You talk about the method of paying TA. What did you mean by `there was work done on the method of paying TA'? I really do not understand what was happening and I am just trying to get to the bottom of it—just at the departmental level.
Ms Whisker —There was no analysis done, sorry.
Senator Abetz —It was just routine payment of TA as the forms came in, I would assume.
Ms Whisker —Yes.
Senator FAULKNER —I may have misunderstood you, but I thought you said that there was some reconciliation of staff who had been paid TA and the like. Was that done?
Ms Whisker —It is because of the special arrangements.
Senator FAULKNER —What were the special arrangements?
Mr Gavin —Perhaps I can just clarify this very quickly, if I may.
Senator FAULKNER —Hang on, Mr Gavin. We may be speaking at cross purposes here; I just want to be clear. It is, again, Ms Whisker's use of the terminology `because of the special arrangements'. I just want to understand what the special arrangements are.
Senator Abetz —And Mr Gavin is going to assist you in that regard.
Senator FAULKNER —Thank you.
Mr Gavin —There has been a longstanding arrangement that goes back many elections in respect of the leaders of the two major parties that, in order to facilitate the speedy exit from hotels, the arrangements for the payment of travelling allowance are changed during the election campaign. It was that different set of arrangements that Ms Whisker was referring to. The different arrangements essentially are that the bill is sent to Finance and we settle it, and then later we have the whole thing acquitted by each individual staff member based on their travelling allowance entitlement.
Senator FAULKNER —I am aware of that special arrangement, and I think you are right. That has applied for a number of election campaigns, hasn't it?
Mr Gavin —Yes.
Senator FAULKNER —I think it is extended to not only leaders' staff but also the leaders themselves, if they desire to, for their own travel allowance arrangements.
Mr Gavin —The convention is that the leaders do not claim any travelling allowance.
Senator FAULKNER —Yes, but in the lead-up to the policy speech.
Mr Gavin —That is right; it is available. My understanding is that at the last election neither leader availed themselves of it.
Senator FAULKNER —No, I do not doubt that. But when you say that they do not claim TA, that is not entirely accurate, is it?
—The convention is that on both sides the claim for the frontbench is not made until after the policy launch by the leader, that is right.
Senator FAULKNER —That is right, yes.
Senator ROBERT RAY —But you are saying in any event they did not even claim it up to that point.
Mr Gavin —No, what I was trying to say was that the special arrangement of ticking it up on the bill and settling later, as I recall, was not used.
Senator FAULKNER —Yes, but my point was that what we have described as a special arrangement is available to not only staff but also leaders—that is true, isn't it?
Mr Gavin —Yes.
Senator FAULKNER —I am aware of it having been utilised. In relation to the question that was taken on notice, how was it dealt with at the departmental level in terms of working through the material that would be required to answer the question? What were you able to draw on? Were you only able to draw on actual original travel allowance documents—the forms, in other words—or was there any other material you could draw on?
Mr Barnes —My area is responsible for processing those claims, and we operate off the original claim forms for travel. Those were documented. We then had the acquittal process referred to by Mr Gavin in terms of matching up the original travel request form with the hotel accounts that were received in bulk.
Senator FAULKNER —In my and Mr Gavin's discussion about special arrangements, that is what you meant by special arrangements, isn't it, Ms Whisker?
Ms Whisker —Yes.
Senator FAULKNER —It is a relief that we have been able to deal with that. You mentioned a hotel—is there any particular hotel that we are talking about here, or is it any hotel?
Mr Barnes —There were, I believe, some nominated hotels where groups were staying and arrangements had been made for bulk billing.
Senator FAULKNER —Could you name the hotels? Were there any nominated hotels in Melbourne?
Mr Barnes —There were, but I am afraid I could not name them at the present. I do not know them.
Senator FAULKNER —Chair, are you planning to break before the AEC are called? What is your intention?
CHAIR —Yes. Any time between now and five to 11—when you are ready.
Senator FAULKNER —It might be possible, then, Mr Barnes, over the break—because I did want to return to this and go through it in some detail when we return—to look at the relevant Melbourne hotels and the quantum of travel allowance in those hotels under the special arrangement. I am sure you would be able to press a few buttons on the computer to provide that information.
Senator Abetz —Are you really sure you want to go down that track?
Senator FAULKNER —Yes. I am absolutely certain I want to go down that track.
Senator Abetz —If we want to publicise where people have been staying or not staying—
—I want to know about the special arrangements in Melbourne.
Senator ROBERT RAY —There may be a middle course, Minister; we will consider that.
Senator Abetz —Yes.
Senator ROBERT RAY —Let us bring the information in and we will consider what questions we ask to take that into account.
Senator FAULKNER —Frankly, my response to you is that I do want to go down that track. I actually want to find out about the payment of travel allowance to staff working in Melbourne.
Senator ROBERT RAY —During the election campaign. Maybe not at staff headquarters—who knows?
Senator Abetz —I can understand that. That is already, I think, on notice. We can possibly discuss this privately.
Senator ROBERT RAY —You are making a point back to us that you are worried about the nature of the way the question is being asked in terms of interfering with privacy. Let us have a think about that because we have not actually put that question. Once the information is available we will try to think of a way of putting that.
Senator Abetz —All right.
Senator FAULKNER —One way of dealing with this might be to move away from what occurred at the last estimates and go to the Senate question on notice on 5 April. Where are we up to in answering that question?
Mr Edge —I understand that some information has been pulled together, but we are still working through it. There is quite a bit of detail to sort through in terms of establishing travel. The way the airline records work in the system is that we have to filter out trips that went through Melbourne but may have gone to other places like Perth or Hobart. There is quite a bit of work to be done on the data before we can actually consolidate it.
Senator ROBERT RAY —But the actual information of who claimed travel allowance in Melbourne is a lot more retrievable, isn't it?
Mr Edge —It would be, Senator. As I understand it—and Mr Barnes may correct me—there is some linkage between the travel allowance and the travel records in the system, so we have got to do some filtering of information to correctly establish—
Senator ROBERT RAY —I thought you had to specify on the form where you are claiming travel allowance for, especially now they are differential rates. Therefore, if you claimed it for Melbourne you were in Melbourne that night. I do not see your point here.
Mr Edge —I guess the point is that there is quite a bit of work involved in actually working through the data that we have got to correctly identify the data that is relevant to answering your question.
Senator ROBERT RAY —I am starting to understand that when I read parts of the question, but that part relating to travel allowance I would have thought could be answered very quickly. You should have at least accumulated that data so we can pursue that here today. You are given 30 days to answer these questions. I always argue that is not enough time, but we are now almost getting more to the 50-day mark where it is a bit more reasonable.
—So there is no lack of clarity about this, I placed the Senate question on notice because of the response I received via email to the estimates question. It is fairly obvious—
Senator ROBERT RAY —You put two and two together.
Senator FAULKNER —and I am sure, Ms Mason, that you and your organisation worked that out. I hope that I have been able to clarify any uncertainties via that mechanism. I did not want to wait until the estimates round. I thought it was better to kick the work off. What you are saying is that this question is being answered in detail?
Senator Abetz —I think your difficulty is that you have asked seven questions in the one question. The one question had seven parts, and I daresay until—
Senator FAULKNER —That is true, Senator Abetz, and, as you know, you have got a choice—
Senator Abetz —the department has got all the information together of the seven parts an answer will not be supplied, as I understand the practice. You have asked one question with seven parts and until all that information is available—
Senator ROBERT RAY —What is the projected—
Senator Abetz —I do not know what the projection is.
Senator ROBERT RAY —Sorry; I did not mean to interrupt. What is the projected date for finalisation to submit to a minister?
Mr Edge —We estimate about two more weeks.
Senator ROBERT RAY —Are you saying that you cannot, at some stage today—leaving aside this question—answer questions about how many staff claim travel allowance in Melbourne? Are you saying that you do not have information available to you to answer those, irrespective of the question on notice?
Mr Edge —My understanding is that we do not have accurate enough information to do that today.
Senator FAULKNER —Do you have a copy of the Senate question on notice in front of you at the moment? Let us just work through this. You might be able to indicate to us after the break what the status is in relation to the information gathering on each of those seven elements. It will give you a chance to have a look at that and let us know.
Proceedings suspended from 10.57 a.m. to 11.20 a.m.