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Tuesday 10 January 2017

Ley her off

Given only 18 months has elapsed since the Choppergate affair saw the dismissal of the speaker of the house, it is simply mind-boggling that expense rorts should surface so soon. Yet here they are centre stage, taking media focus and infuriating the electorate. I covered the last affair in some detail including some suggestions for improving the system (see Conflict of Interest and Footnotes on expense rorts ), so let me just restate a few of the conclusions.

It is hard to think of a case where politicians interests are less aligned with the people they represent than with our pollies' expense claims. Be it a family holiday to Uluru for the wife and kids for $12000 at taxpayer expense, or hiring a chopper for $5000 to get to fund raiser, one would think they lived on a different planet, totally out of touch with their constituency.

In the most recent case Ley's 16 trips to the Gold Coast, where her husband happens to have some business interest, simply doesn't pass the sniff test. Then by way of explanation claiming that a purchase of an $800,000 unit was 'unplanned'  Give me a break.

"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 is contrite and makes some reparation payment. 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 elect to represent us.

There is a lack of scrutiny, a lack of clarity, and the lack of visibility of these expenses. 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. Putting a system in place is not difficult. I have suggested a possible scheme and include below the key requirements. For further details see Conflict of Interest.

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).
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.

Set the bar high

In view of the justified public outrage it is time our leaders established a business-like set of of rules for the eligibility and accountability of all expense claims. Moreover all such claims should be posted on a web site to provide visibility to the public. The punishment for non-compliance should be high and should comprise repayment plus a significant penalty, say double the original claim. Ministers should face immediate dismissal form the ministry for any proven non-compliance.

...but provide an amnesty

Unfortunately Ley's case is no doubt just the tip of the iceberg and many other ministerial transgressions can be identified were all MPs' claims closely scrutinized. So to prevent a wholesale dismissal of the cabinet, despite what the public may want, Turnbull should provide an amnesty for any offences that occurred before the  implementation of the new rules.

Given the politics this should not save Ley, she happens to have been caught out and should be sacked from the ministry. However effective from the date of the announcement any offence should see immediate dismissal. The ministry certainly has had fair warning.

It is time the government started to rebuild long lost trust in our politicians. Implementing a tough expense claim systems is a good place to start.