When John Faulkner was shifted from the Special Minister of State portfolio to become Defence Minister, some fears were voiced that his drive for improving accountability and transparency in the activities of government and politicians would be dissipated.
However, Queensland Senator Joe Ludwig, who took on the Special Minister of State role, appears to be doing a good job of continuing with positive, sensible changes in this area.
In response to issues identified through the Auditor-General’s inquiry into the printing allowances of parliamentarians, Senator Ludwig has announced a number of worthwhile, immediate changes, namely:
• a further 25% cut to the current printing entitlement, from $100,000 to $75,000 per annum for Members and $16,667 to $12,500 for Senators (this is in addition to the 33% cut by the Rudd Government when elected to office);
• ending the use of printing entitlements for electioneering such as printing how to vote cards;
• capping, for the first time, expenditure by MPs on office consumables such as toner and paper;
• combining the current printing and communications allowance entitlements into a single entitlement;
• establishing a rigorous vetting and checking system within the Department of Finance to ensure the material Members and Senators print is within entitlement;
• reforming the current newspapers and periodicals allowance; and
• expanding the current reporting system to publish all expenditure of Senators, Members, former Parliamentarians, family members and employees, of entitlements administered by the Department of Finance and Deregulation.
Contrary to some of the impressions being given about the Auditor-General’s report, while it did identify major problems with the current system of allowances, it didn’t find widespread rorting. This isn’t to say that there was no misuse identified. The Auditor-General also found problems with the way the entitlements framework was administered.
But in my view, the major problem – also identified by the Auditor-General – is that the framework around the printing entitlement is complex, outdated and imprecise. The very fact that the Auditor-General stated that many usages that were examined were “at risk of being outside entitlement” indicates the ambiguity inherent in the current guidelines. I know a couple of my previous usages of the printing allowance that the Auditor-General scrutinised came within this category.