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Friday 24 July 2015

Conflict of interest

Politicians work hard to project the image that they always strive to fulfill the needs of the people and the community they represent. But is this always so?

There is no doubt room for argument about what effectively represents a community whose views are, lets say, less than uniform. But this is a mere quibble when we look at some of the conflicts of interest they face in fulfilling this image.

The most obvious is that of parliamentarian remuneration,. While there is always a 'misalignment' between the community and its representatives, here at least, there is a credible argument that 'you get what you pay for'. As many have argued that given what we get, we should be paying more.

But it is hard to think of a case where politicians interests are less aligned with the people they represent than with our pollies' travel expense claims. These are a veritable cesspool of iniquity. There are all too many cases where the peoples' representatives seem to only represent themselves. From their profligate travel-style one would think they lived on a different planet, totally out of touch with their constituency.

When brought to our attention, we all rail at the magnitude and mindlessness of such excess. What in the remotest corner of her brain would have concocted the notion that spending $5,000 for a helicopter to travel half an hour to a Liberal fund-raiser was reasonable, let alone acceptable to the people she represents? It is non-sense. It cannot be justified! And we all know it. Lest you think I am being one-sided, consider our recent past PM claiming expenses for her partner's jaunt around Victoria promoting hair-care goods.

There are of course more subtle abuses where an MP will sort of 'tack on' a claimable event to what is in large-part un-claimable. While this is generally accepted by MPs, and a compliant media I add, as 'fair', we, the public, see it as a rort.  It would not be acceptable to our employers so, as employers of these MPs, it is not acceptable to us.

"a total failure of our political class, in the face of a clear conflict of interest, to set proper standards of behaviour"

It does not matter one iota that when caught the MP pays it back. It does not matter that there is a bit of a penalty when a mis-claim has been identified. The public, the people these MPs are meant to represent are outraged. We don't accept such egregious conduct as a simple 'error of judgment' from those we select to represent us.

The lack of scrutiny, the lack of clarity, and the lack of visibility of MPs' expenses is a serious issue. It demonstrates a total failure of our political class, in the face of a clear conflict of interest, to set proper standards of behaviour. No corporate entity would accept an open-ended expense system. Commercial operations clearly define the scope of claims, the means of travel allowed, and set and review budgets. Indeed where expenditure by a company has been seen to benefit an individual it is a 'Fringe benefit' which is taxable.

Expense claims must be Reasonable and Accountable

I guess this is just a rant unless I add a few suggestions. So here goes.

All politician expense claims must be reasonable and accountable.

'Reasonable' simply means a claim must be consistent with accepted norms within commercial and non-commercial enterprises. This is just the 'sniff' test. Many travel claims, by our MPs certainly fail this 'sniff' test. If an MP has some doubt about what is reasonable, they should submit an application for pre-approval (see below).

A suggested set of guidelines for what constitutes 'reasonable' is provided below;

What constitutes 'reasonable' travel claims?
MP will be reimbursed for travel expenses when directly connected with their role as a member of parliament

Actual costs incurred for air or road travel subject to; -
- travel by most direct route
- travel at lowest cost
- travel with approved carrier
- Business class (but not first class)

Actual out of pocket costs with supporting receipts subject to a per day limit of $1000, or $700 per day if claimed on a per diem basis when no receipts are required

Spouse/partner/family can accompany but any additional costs to be paid by MP
Where only a part of a trip is claimable as being a necessary part of MPs role, the reimbursement for carrier costs will be pro-rated for the proportion of travel which is claimable. The out-of-pocket costs will be for those full days which qualify as claimable

Any claims which would breach these rules must be submitted and pre-approved in writing

Accountability requires all claims to be managed formally by an independent body and for the public interest they should be visible. If the MP's work on behalf of their constituents then they should 'report ' to their constituency. What better way to shine a light on the excesses than to publish all claims on a website.

A suggested set of rules for accountability are provided below;

How to ensure accountability for travel claims
Expense claim policy to be fully documented and provided to MPs.

All claims must be submitted on the appropriate form together with supporting receipts and be signed by the MP within 30 days of costs being incurred.

MPs can submit 'pre-approval' requests for a future claim, if they seek certainty that a claim will not be rejected. Such requests for pre-approval are processed as normal claims and if approved a pre-approval authorisation is provided 

All claims to be vetted against the policy by the nominated department (Finance?) and rejections notified to the MP

All approved AND rejected claims,are to be published on a web-site to provide full visibility to the electorate

Its about time!

Unfortunately, like a bad dream the looseness of MP travel expense policy keeps coming back. Indeed past and current PMs seem to rely on our short memories. The media change focus to the next drama and we are easily distracted. Screaming headlines earlier this week have been replaced by the ALP annual conference. The ALP's proposed turn-back of asylum seeker policies drowning out the cacophony of 'helicopter-gate'. So the circus moves on. 
But lets face it. Unless we address the vagaries in the current policies, the next travel rort drama is just around the corner. It is not only about time to address these policies, it is long overdue.

Copyright(C)2015 Grappy's Soap Box, all rights reserved

Friday 17 July 2015

Interviewing:Boxing or Surgery?

(This is an excerpt from earlier post titled "Raising the standard of public broadcasting" . I have posted it in response to some Twitter interaction.)

Journalistic aggression

With all the encouragement from their supporters, and indeed their colleagues, it is not surprising that many a journalist has taken taken a pugnacious stance against those 'on the other side'. Interviewing is perceived by many a journalist, as a 'blood sport'. Journos and their audience each baying for the 'gotcha moment', seeking that telling bead of sweat on the brow, or even the odd broken glass. These are hailed as measures of success and receive general acclaim from journalists and the twitterati alike. 

Indeed some of these aggressive interviews have become icons of reportage, heralded long after their normal use-by date. Consider the Alberici interview on Lateline with the Hizb ut Tahrir representative, or Sarah Ferguson's interview on ABC 730 report with Joe Hockey on budget night.

Boxing or Surgery?

I have always found this rather distasteful for a couple of reasons. Primarily, our journalists, are the first line of our public discourse, a demonstration of how professionals deal with each other even when they may have differing views. By their large audience our media set the standard for all our behaviour. Aggressive questioning, clearly intended to attack the individual, interrupting them while they are talking, talking over them, or signs of enjoyment of another's discomfort, does not set a good example.  It is not how we want people to treat each other.

And secondly, it is also counter-productive.When a journalist takes an aggressive attitude, the interviewee, usually a politician, will 'clam up'. When they reluctantly appear for battle, they become guarded, mechanical, limiting their discourse and offering less information. Often they will avoid the interviewer altogether. The consequence is we are all the losers.

Journalism, professional journalism, should be about content not about style. The professional journalist should be more surgeon than boxer. With good knowledge of the topic and a quick wit they should be able to cut through the defensive shields of even the most capable politician. 

If a politician refuses to answer a question, that is his prerogative. You can ask a couple of times, but if he doesn't answer he has certainly demonstrated his unwillingness to do so, and he has shown this to the whole viewing audience. If a politician makes long-winded answers and you cannot get your questions in, that is also his prerogative. Again he has demonstrated his unwillingness to converse, in other than sloganese, to the viewing public.

PBS Newshour as the paragon

Whereas 'Gotcha journalism has become fashionable, especially on our public broadcaster, great journalists rarely have had to resort to overt emotions or aggressive questioning. The Frost/Nixon interviews come immediately to mind, but there are many others.

PBS Newshour, televised each day on SBS is the template I wish would be followed by all our Australian news media, and especially our public broadcaster. Its success is founded on the editorial guidelines (see table below) created by Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer, the creators of the program.

PBS Newhour Editorial guidelines
(also called MacNeil / Lehrer journalism.)
"Do nothing I cannot defend."
"Cover, write, and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me."
"Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story."
"Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am."
"Assume the same about all people on whom I report."
"Assume personal lives are a private matter until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise."
"Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories, and clearly label everything."
"Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes except on rare and monumental occasions."
"No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously."
"And finally, I am not in the entertainment business."

Some characteristics stand out; -
  • Strong debate on topics of political and general interest
  • all journalists top of their game ( regular presenters include Gwen IfillJudy WoodruffHari SreenivasanMargaret WarnerJeffrey Brown, Paul Solman
  • all interviews focused on a topic, interviewers always polite, questions however are sharpened to clearly highlight every aspects of the topic
  • most interviews have the journalist as an independent moderator with two interviewees representing each side of the argument
This last point is perhaps the most pertinent and should be used more often in Australia.
SkyNews does do this quite often, but could do more. Our ABC mostly fails to do this. If the ABC went out of its way to ensure both sides of an argument were presented by articulate and knowledgeable advocates, a lot of the criticism of the ABC for bias, would be dissipated.

How do we fare?

How do I rate our Australian networks and shows? Let me stick my neck out. No doubt you will tell me where you disagree.

As far as networks are concerned I think PBS Newshour is Gold, SkyNews is Silver and our own ABC is bronze.

With regard to News debate I believe SkyNews' Sunday Agenda comes closest to the high quality professional interviewing of the PBS Newshour. A straightforward panel discussion with pollies and journos asking questions, sometimes very probing questions, and sufficient time to subvert the 'pollie-waffle' escape.

SBS' Dateline and Four Corners do a creditable job on specific topics, but often strongly advocate for one side of an argument without adequately presenting the alternate view.

These are weekly programs, the dailies don't fare as well. Sky News' PM Agenda, ABC's AM and PM radio prgrams do a creditable job. Sky's PM Agenda goes out of it s way to have two advocates in debate format. ABC's 730 Report and Lateline rarely do this and often take adversarial, and patronising approach in their interviews.

I know I have left many out, but these are my regulars, and prefer not to comment on those I do not follow.

Copyright(C)2015 Grappy's Soap Box, all rights reserved

Monday 13 July 2015

The 'Industrial Peace' Racket

"Houston we have a problem"

For those too young to remember "Houston we have a problem"* were the first, somewhat understated, words of astronauts in space alerting 'head-office' when some malfunction was identified. Those of us of the right maturity have these indelibly forged into our psyche as heralding a potentially serious problem.

Indeed I believe we have a problem.

Watching and listening to the media circus over the last week, one is left with varying views of Bill Shorten's appearance at the Trade Union Royal Commission (TURC).

He was caught with "multiple smoking guns",  and "should resign", or that the whole TURC is a Liberal, or more accurately, "Tony Abbot witch hunt" and labour leaders are being "victimised". Indeed many a shrill defender of Shorten's honour has gone out of his way to get some sort of hot quote about the wonderful Unions and the hateful Tony Abbott.

I guess this is the norm for today's media frenzies, but what can we poor mugs take away from this. 

Firstly, whether the intentions of the LNP, or Tony Abbott, if you prefer, in establishing the TURC was political, is irrelevant, as its success will ultimately be judged only when it has run its course. Those criticising so volubly today seem to have other motivations themselves.

Further, the late declaration of a political donation, as noted by many is not uncommon. The focus on this aspect of his testimony by many journos and Labour defenders is simply to deflect from Shorten's failures. 

But it was not a political donation at all. More likely it was some sort of 'fringe benefit' as a by-product of an EBA deal. This of course presents the real problem. 

"The AWU has been seen as a moderate Union which has worked in harmony with business for the betterment of both workers and employers". So its supporters would say. But, if the AWU, as a matter of course, accepted payments from companies as part of an EBA negotiation then we have a problem.

Extortion is a criminal offense of obtaining money, property, or services from a person, entity, or institution, through coercion. It is sometimes euphemistically referred to as a "protection racket" since the racketeers often phrase their demands as payment for "protection" from (real or hypothetical) threats from unspecified other parties. 

We are all familiar with extortion or protection rackets, often associated with the Mafia, whereby henchmen would demand property owners pay to ensure their premises were protected from thugs. If payment was not made their property was vandalised or burnt down and perhaps the owners would be bashed for good measure, by the very same thugs demanding money. It only took a few brave souls to decline these 'protection services' and receive their punishment to ensure others would fall in line and make their regular payments.

Do you notice any similarity with the apparent modus operandum of the AWU in their negotiation of EBA's with employers?

As per Shorten's testimony, the AWU negotiates, a perhaps unstated but implied, 'industrial peace' in return for benefits, not only for the workers but for a financial return to the Union itself!

This payment to the Union is in effect a benefit to the Union bosses who use these funds either for advancing their Union as it competes for members against other Unions, or for, let's call it 'private purposes'. Such as those derived, for example by the likes of Williamson, Thompson, Jackson and let me include Shorten.

If the employer fails to comply, there is an implied 'menace' of a strike or a boycott or in the case of some of the more thuggish unions, sabotage and well.. thuggery.
In the same way as the property owners faced with extortion learnt to pay, employers faced with the threat of labour strife have learnt to pay. It is easier.

A Union should never accept employer payments

There is a legitimate role for Unions in working on behalf of their members to improve working conditions. But when a Union accepts any payment directly from an employer in any form it is not just a 'conflict of interest', it is a crime. It is akin to 'demanding money with menaces', it is eliciting a 'bribe', it is 'extortion'.

Where is the media?

I am surprised that almost all media has avoided calling the Union's role in accepting direct payment from employers a crime.
Houston this is the problem: Not only do we have rampant extortion in operation within our industrial relations system, but our media seem to find it acceptable!

* I have been advised I misquoted - see https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Houston,_we_have_a_problem

Copyright(C)2015 Grappy's Soap Box, all rights reserved