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problem – also identified by the Auditor-General – is that the framework around the printing entitlement is complex, outdated and imprecise.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.

I can recall my own experiences in trying to get clear advice about what was and wasn’t within entitlement. In particular, the very gray line between printing for ‘parliamentary or electoral activities’ (which is allowed) and ‘political party activities’ (which isn’t allowed) created a lot of uncertainty, given that a lot of an MP’s party activities are inherently intertwined with what they do in Parliament or their electorate.  Making this vagueness even more problematic is that some formal advices were provided saying that things like using the allowance to print how-to-cards was permitted, even though many would see this usage as something that was party political. The government’s decision to formally define “electioneering” for the first time, and tightly restrict the use of printing entitlements for this purpose is a major step forward. Apart from preventing possible misue, it will also slightly level the electoral playing field by at least preventing the incumbent from being able to have the taxpayer fund a big chunk of their electoral materials.

In some cases, trying to get clarity about what was and wasn’t within entitlement was a bit like getting legal advice – you get an opinion of might be allowed, but no guarantee that someone else won’t make a determination to the contrary down the track.  A ‘rule of thumb’ advice that was sometimes provided was ‘not to do anything that would look bad on the front page of the newspaper.’  Given that newspapers are quite capable of making politicians look bad just for existing, that advice isn’t always of much help.

Whilst the main focus on the changes announced to date will probably be on the reductions in the size of the overall printing and communication budgets, perhaps one of the most worthwhile changes is the capping of expenditure – at $35 000 annually – on the previously unlimited entitlement for things such as paper and toner for office printers and photocopiers.

This is one example where technology had made the existing open ended allowance in this area a bigger problem.  When I first started working as a politician’s staffer in 1990, we were only just moving from dot matrix printers to laser printers and the photocopiers of the time would repeatedly break down if you tried to use them for big copying jobs.

These days, computers can print direct to photocopiers which are basically mini printing-presses that can churn out enormous quantities very quickly.  Combined with a lack of clear guidelines about what things you can or can’t use photocopiers for, having an open-ended entitlement in this area was bound to become a bigger and bigger problem.

Apart from the reforms already announced, Senator Ludwig has also set up a four person panel to provide advice on how to further improve the system.  The only slight criticism I have of this measure is that I think this panel should have a former politician or two on it, because they are most likely to have an idea of all the many potential usages and ambiguities that can occur in this area as part of politicians carrying out their job.  (I’m not saying this by way of looking for a job, I hasten to add. If I was approached to do something like this in a formal way, I’d have to say no).

I hope that the four person panel not only consults politicians (current or former) as part of their task, but also seeks the views of the general public, including the media.  Whilst some people would no doubt say politicians shouldn’t have any allowances or entitlements at all, I think it would be helpful to get some considered views from across the community about how best to frame and define what should or shouldn’t be appropriate uses of printing allowances.

UPDATE: There were some speeches made in the Senate this week about the issues raised in the Auditor-General’s report. They’re worth reading to get an idea of some of the political reactions and context.  The speeches can be accessed through this link.

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