Turnbull makes a good start on expenses, but needs to go further
By Professor Colleen Lewis
It is regrettable that the path leading to the establishment of an independent body to oversee the work-related expenses of parliamentarians has been so tortuous. It is also regrettable that it took such an inordinate amount of time for a political leader to conclude that creating such a body was essential to tackling the ever-widening trust deficit between MPs and those they represent.
We need to criticise MPs’ questionable behaviour when warranted. But we need to be just as quick to acknowledge the good they have done from their position of power. So congratulations, prime minister, for displaying the leadership needed to commence restoring trust in MPs and the political system.
Malcolm Turnbull’s announcement that he will establish an independent statutory body to offer advice to MPs and monitor and review their work-related expenses is commendable, especially as the new system will make all claims public within a month of an expense occurring.
It is also pleasing to see that Labor has given in-principle support, but has also suggested investigating the idea of a federal ICAC.
It would be even more pleasing if politicians from all political affiliations could proclaim their support without also making what they appear to believe are the obligatory negative comments about other MPs and/or their parties.
MPs appear to think it is absolutely necessary to denigrate each other at every possible opportunity. However, the electorate may not. Trust in politicians is at an all-time low. And the constant insults that are hurled on a daily basis may well be contributing to the declining trust.
It is a tiresome practice. It only reinforces the now commonly held belief that the profession of parliamentarian consists of incompetent people that are incapable of telling the truth.
MPs don’t seem to understand that repeatedly telling the community how bad members of their profession are encourages us to agree with them. It is hard to think of any other profession that engages in such self-destructive behaviour on a daily basis. The creation of this new, independent body would be a good place for MPs to give credit where it is due without the negative asides.
The new body is an important first step toward building a meaningful system of accountability and transparency, essential to the restoration of trust. However, there is one element of Turnbull’s announcement that should be rethought.
It relates to the composition of the independent board that will have responsibility for ensuring the efficiency and effectiveness of the authority. It seems it will consist of a person with expertise in auditing, a person with experience in remuneration matters, such as the president of the Remuneration Tribunal, a former judicial officer, and a former MP.
But where are the people who are going to be the voice of the community? They were not part of the 2016 committee asked to review the current system and make recommendations for an independent parliamentary entitlements system. And it seems that, yet again, they are not going to be given a seat on the proposed new board. Turnbull needs to explain why not.
It was community anger that led to the recent announcement that an independent body would be created to oversee MPs’ work-related expenses, not the anger of politicians, former politicians, the chair of the Remuneration Tribunal or other members of the 2016 review team.
The government should rethink the composition of those it appoints to form tribunals, review panels and boards, especially when the policy area they will be responsible for relates to matters directly linked to the trust deficit.
It is time to take a different approach and appoint people whose role it is to ensure that community values are reflected in the decision-making process. Doing so will go a long way to demonstrating that elected representatives are listening to the wishes of the people.
Reforming the system for work-related expenses is a necessary first step towards restoring people’s faith in elected representatives and the political system. But it does not go far enough. A major overhaul of the political donations regime is essential, as is the establishment of a federal ICAC.
Prime minister, the community is asking that you continue to display the same leadership you have in policy areas associated with integrity that you have in establishing an independent body to oversee the work-related expenses of MPs. You can do this by significantly reforming how politics is funded at the federal level in Australia and by establishing a federal anti-corruption body.
The community awaits your decision.
Colleen Lewis, Adjunct Professor, National Centre for Australian Studies, Monash University