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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.

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