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Thursday, 16 February 2017
Page: 1288

Senator RYAN (VictoriaSpecial Minister of State and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Cabinet) (20:12): Firstly, I would like to thank senators who have contributed to the debate and those around the parliament that have been involved in the consultation with respect to bringing this bill forward as well as for people's understanding so we can deal with it this evening. As I have noted previously, politicians must be accountable for the use of taxpayers' dollars. The Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2017 is now the second step in the biggest reform to the management of parliamentarian expenses in more than a generation. The new authority will provide clear and consistent guidance, advice and rulings for parliamentarians to ensure that our spending of public money meets the expectations of the Australian public.

As the government has also announced, we will continue to implement the recommendations of the Conde June review in order to improve the legislative and administrative framework of the assisting existing parliamentary work expenses system. I look forward to working with other members and senators to ensure that these important and timely reforms are delivered in the coming months.

It is 34 days ago today that the Prime Minister made the announcement that we were going to have an independent parliamentary expenses authority—less than five weeks. Tonight, hopefully, we will see passage of this piece of legislation that is an important step in rebuilding and maintaining public trust in our use of scarce public resources in our job. I think that is a testament to the commitment of this government to actually implement this most significant change in a generation because there are not many examples where government can move as quickly on such important institutions.

The government will be opposing the second reading amendments. I will brief briefly refer to contributions made in the other place as well as in that earlier debate on the Parliamentary Entitlements Legislation Amendment Bill. With respect to the establishment of a compliance officer position, this authority will be independent. We do intend to set it up particularly quickly. Ideally, it would be up in a formal sense by midyear. The interim authority was announced as an executive authority last Thursday by the Prime Minister; we are in the process of working on that now.

In terms of transparency, I had advised that this body is a body that can be called before Senate estimates. Now, that occurs three times a year. I might say, I think most senators would agree that the Senate estimates process is a testament to the parliament and is also probably the most scrutinising of virtually anything that does happen in the Australian public sector, along with Auditor-General's reports. That will give an opportunity for senators to ask questions and that will give an opportunity for officials to take questions on notice. I think that in itself demonstrates the government's commitment to the transparency that this body represents. This body will also have the flexibility to make certain reports if it wishes.

For the reasons I outlined in an earlier debate, we also oppose the second reading amendment that refers to higher penalties above the 25 per cent. As I have said earlier, I think the monthly reporting, in a very accessible format, is actually the greatest protection of all. Scarce taxpayer resources and effectively our public reputations are on the line in the way we spend it. I think that is actually much more important than what might be a nominal financial penalty.

Finally, with respect to the electorate allowance, I understand that this also may have been outlined in the other place. The government does not support the changes proposed by the Greens. The electorate allowance was discussed in a review by the Remuneration Tribunal in December 2011, where the current arrangements were considered appropriate. The tribunal noted in its report:

The Electorate Allowance is an expense of office allowance for senators and members to provide them with funding for costs necessarily incurred in providing services to their constituents. It is paid monthly with the member’s salary.

There is a wide discretion for individual parliamentarians in how this allowance can be spent. Indeed, part of the point of this allowance and the way in which it is delivered is to provide funds for parliamentarians to be able to meet a range of expenses which cannot necessarily been foreseen in their nature or quantum.

Members and senators may use the electorate allowance for a wide variety of reasons, as was noted in the John Conde review released last year. For example: attendance at functions in the electorate, such as tickets, donations or purchases at fetes; donations to appeals and organisations; expenses associated with patronage of an organisation; presentations for school speech days, sporting clubs, senior citizen awards, et cetera; telephone and postage costs beyond those met by the Commonwealth; newspaper and periodical subscriptions beyond those provided by the Commonwealth; subscriptions to organisations; or additional full-time, part-time or casual secretarial assistance or wages for electorate duties. How the allowance can be utilised was detailed by the Australian Taxation Office in a specific ruling for members and senators. I am sure all members are familiar with this.

I do not think it is practical—given the purpose of this allowance and the wide uses it is put to across the country by people representing very different constituencies in very different parts of our nation—or feasible to have a process whereby people seek authorisation for each particular expense—in some cases, for a particular raffle ticket. This bill coming forward in less than five weeks from the date of the Prime Minister's announcement—in 34 days—and the passage of the previous bill demonstrate this government's strong support to take immediate action on the biggest reforms of parliamentary expenses in a generation. I commend the bill to the Senate.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator O'Sullivan ): The question is that the amendment moved by Senator Rhiannon be agreed to.

Question negatived.