August 05, 2015

Horse 1952 - Travelling Violations

I know that I'm not exactly the most direct person and often prefer to call a spade a pointed tool for digging, lifting, and moving bulk materials such as dirt and earth, but it seems to me that this whole kerfuffle surrounding the misuse of parliamentary travel entitlements could have been solved a long time ago and through mechanisms which already exist.
Even though there will not be a serious inquiry into the use or misuse of parliamentary entitlements, it should go without saying that where any system exists, then someone somewhere will have the potential to abuse that system. In this case, it should have been obvious to all including that if you don't want a metric owl-load of parliamentarians claiming unnecessary travel allowances - don't let them.

Better yet, give all the power to arrange travel to a bunch of specialists:
As set out in the Parliamentary Service Act 1999, the Parliamentary Budget Officer has the following functions:
- To prepare responses (other than policy costings) to requests relating to the budget by Senators or Members of the House of Representatives.

Even as someone who used to work for the Commonwealth Public Service and was frequently sent around the country, I never even once arranged my own travel arrangements. On every occasion that I was sent into the wide blue yonder, I was given a timetable, an itinerary and a series of tickets and was told that I needed to be at X place, at Y time and would stay at Z hotel. Every aspect of travel on public service business was arranged by someone else, who presumably because they were working for a government agency, had the power to arrange discounts and better offers because the government as a single purchaser had more bargaining power. My ability as a public servant to arrange my own travel plans or claim expenses was precisely nil; if this is true for the foot soldiers and plebs of the public service, then I don't see any good reason why that should not also be the case for the public service's lords and masters, MPs, cabinet ministers and even the Prime Minster.

Nominally it is the Parliamentary Budget Office which handles the expenses of MPs. Is there a good, prudent or even sensible reason why the Parliamentary Budget Office shouldn't also have similar powers? Surely if a single agency handled all travel arrangements for all 226 Members and Senators, then there wouldn't even need to be an inquiry about parliamentarians claiming unnecessary travel allowances because they wouldn't be claiming anything in the first place?
It seems to me (you lived your life like a sandal in the bin) that once you create a sense of entitlement among privileged people, that that entitlement can and will be abused. If I was designing a system from the outset, then I'd separate the authority to pay from the site where those items are paid from. In a small business that usually means having the person who writes cheques from being denied the ability to sign those cheques and likewise, locking the chequebook away from the person with authority to sign. If you remove ability from authority and authority from ability, then this puts in place checks and balances on cheques and balance books.
This parliamentary expenses crisis has shone light on the fact that expenses are firstly incurred and then claimed; which in effect puts the chequebook and the pen to sign cheques in the same hand and that's just not responsible or safe. Ms Bishop has been moved diagonally from the Speaker's Chair to the Government's Back Bench but the system itself has not been altered. I heard on 702 ABC Sydney this morning, that the Minister for Telecommunications, Malcolm Turnbull, called for "common sense" but when common sense doesn't appear to be all that common or is in fact so common that it is beneath the social strata of the Speaker, then the ones who actually suffer are the taxpayers of the land who get the wool pulled over their eyes as they are being fleeced.
I don't think that this is specifically a crisis caused by party politics either. Former Speaker Peter Slipper also ended up vacating the chair based on expenses claims to the value of not even one tenth that Ms Bishop has claimed. No doubt that this could have also happened during the tenure of a Labour government because the conditions which allowed this to be, were, are and will be identical unless the system is significantly changed.

My other question in all of this is "who did have the authority to approve those expenses?" I find it hard to believe that no-one at any point questioned any of the expenses which they were asked to pay. At some point, there was a financial controller who had to have made a series of direct debits through bank accounts, or written cheques, or even looked at credit card statements and I find it utterly incredible that whoever that was allowed these things to pass. Unless you are Channel 7, or Care Flight, or the Department of Defence, at what point does any sane person deem that a helicopter flight is an acceptable expense? Consider my mind boggled.

Parliament Question Time does not return this week because the government needs to find another Speaker in the wake of Ms Bishop's resignation. I fear that even if the Member for Teflon, Mr Sheen, who is the cleanest member of the House, was appointed as Speaker, then because the conditions which have now brought down two previous Speakers (and potentially any Member of Parliament) still exist, something is bound to stick somewhere.

If you want to call a spade a spade and assume the politicians can not be trusted with an expenses allowance, then don't. Let the PBO make those arrangements for them.

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