Expenses reform is easy and essential – the only thing lacking is politicians’ resolve to do it
By Adjunct Professor Colleen Lewis
What is it that too many politicians don’t get about the inappropriate use of taxpayer-funded expenses and the need to reform federal political donations laws and establish a federal anti-corruption body?
The answer to those questions may help explain why MPs continue to behave inappropriately in each area. This is important, as the impact of politicians’ inappropriate decisions on people’s trust is becoming alarming.
It is now evident that too many politicians appear to have misplaced their moral compass. When this happens in any one of the policy areas referred to above, people’s trust in their elected representatives is eroded. But when inappropriate actions and decisions span all three policy areas, trust is lost, sometimes permanently. If that happens, it is not only the reputation of politicians that suffer. Lack of trust extends to the democratic political system itself.
Public office is a public trust. Any MP who understands, accepts and acts on that principle will surely insist that the public interest be placed before personal and party interests.
The latest in a series of scandals relating to MPs’ inability to understand the difference between public and private interests involves federal Health Minister Sussan Ley.
The public reaction to it should send a strong message to all parliamentarians. The message is: voters are fed up with political scandals consuming elected representatives’ time and energy, especially when the country faces several social and economic challenges. MPs cannot find solutions to these important issues when they are constantly distracted by the behaviour of too many of their colleagues.
Perhaps parliamentarians need reminding that taxpayers do not pay them to take advantage of a totally inadequate parliamentary entitlements scheme with too many loopholes, through which many of them willingly jump.
Federal MPs also need to remember that people do not pay taxes so that they can deliver a political donations regime that is pathetically weak. For years, parliamentarians have turned a blind eye to evidence-based reports and the advice of experts in the political donations field. Both have said time and again that meaningful reform is urgently required.
The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters is due to bring down a report on political donations in March. It will be a test for the committee to come together and demonstrate that it has placed the public interest before party and personal interests. The nature of its recommendations and the speed with which they are implemented will reveal MPs’ commitment to cleaning up this neglected policy area.
Voters have made it clear that they want their elected representatives to be accountable for how they spend taxpayers’ money. One of the best ways to ensure this is through an independent, federal anti-corruption body. A division within such a body could also offer advice to parliamentarians unsure about whether an expense is directly and predominantly related to their role as parliamentarians, or is largely personal in nature.
The evidence clearly demonstrates that many parliamentarians have deliberately dragged their feet when it comes to reforming the “entitlements” scheme and overhauling the woefully inadequate federal political donations regime. They have also resisted the establishment of a federal anti-corruption body. Detailed explanations as to why they have acted in this way are required.
The delays are not only on reforms that affect serving members of parliament. It seems they are also looking after former colleagues. Despite promising to overhaul the entitlements system that still applies to many people who were once parliamentarians – some many years ago – nothing has happened in the past two years.
Why? Is it too difficult? Again, a detailed explanation is required and not one that says “we are looking into it” or “we will establish a committee to do so”. These excuses are becoming tiresome to everyone except MPs.
The very best new year’s resolution every MP could make is to promise to work toward restoring people’s trust, which is at a dangerously low level. An excellent place to start would be reforming, in a meaningful way, MPs’ entitlements and the political donations regime. Establishing a federal anti-corruption body would go a long way towards completing an integrity circle.
All these reforms are achievable this year. The only major obstacle to be overcome is parliamentarians’ lack of resolve to do so.
Colleen Lewis, Adjunct Professor, National Centre for Australian Studies, Monash University