New MP travel rules should add transparency

    Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on 13-Jan-2017 announced important changes to the management of parliamentarians’ travel expenses in the wake of the resignation of Health Minister Sussan Ley after revelations of leisure and private business activities during her taxpayer-funded official trips.

    Mr. Turnbull’s commitment to reform of MPs’ travel spending came amid revelations of other apparent misuse of travel budgets by Cabinet colleagues.

    The changes flagged by the Prime Minister include oversight of parliamentarians’ work expenses:

    “[An independent agency] governed by an independent board, which will include a person experienced in auditing – in audit matters, a person with wide experience in remuneration matters, the President – for the time being – of the Remuneration Tribunal, a former judicial officer and a former MP”.

    The Government will implement the recommendations of the 2016 Independent Review

    The Prime Minister confirmed that the Government will continue to implement the recommendations of the review chaired by John Conde and David Tune into the parliamentary entitlements system.

    The Feb-2016 Independent Parliamentary Entitlements System Review found that travel expenses are the most complex and problematic aspect of parliamentarians’ work expenses.

    “Their complexity arises from being governed by many Acts and subsidiary regulations, determinations and guidelines which have evolved over time without rationalisation, and because different types of transport and associated arrangements are necessary for different situations.”

    Independent Parliamentary Entitlements System Review, Feb-2016

    Among the recommendations highlighted by the Prime Minister is the need for “monthly and more detailed reporting of expenses through an online system”.

    The review called for the follow:

    “principles-based system (that) will permit the parliamentarian to make appropriate travel arrangements without burdensome administration but in a manner which is reasonable and accountable”.

    Mr. Turnbull cited advances in this area made in the United Kingdom, especially the “public  disclosure of parliamentarians’ expenses in an accessible … format”.

    However, the Prime Minister stressed that Canberra will not simply adopt the UK approach:

    “We’re not slavishly bound to the United Kingdom model, I might add, but that is the very clear direction that we are focused on.”

    Australia will be guided by the UK’s pragmatic, transparent approach

    The UK Government expense policy is based on the principle “that civil servants must make sure public money and other resources are used properly and efficiently”.

     “Treasury will reimburse staff for expenditure necessarily incurred on travel and subsistence (T&S) in the course of official business. Staff are responsible for ensuring that no unnecessary costs are incurred and that HMT receives good value for money”.

    The UK Government expense policy

    Crucially, the policy urges all civil servants to ask themselves “Do I need to make this journey?” before incurring any expense. This reflects the policy adopted by most private sector organisations committed to containing costs.

    British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Dec-2016 Ministerial Code sets out specific rules for ministerial travel, insisting that “Ministers must ensure that they always make efficient and cost-effective travel arrangements”.

    The UK Code is more prescriptive about the purpose of official travel, saying it should “not normally be used for travel arrangements arising from Party or private business, except where this is justified on security grounds”. This is more restrictive than the current Australian requirement that the purpose of travel should be for “parliamentary, electorate or official business”.

    The UK standards for spouse travel are also more restrictive than the current Australian arrangements. The UK Code states:

    “The expenses of a Minister’s spouse/partner when accompanying the Minister on the latter’s official duties may occasionally be paid from public funds provided that it is clearly in the public interest that he or she should accompany the Minister. The agreement of the Prime Minister must be obtained on each occasion before travel.”

    The Government already has a comprehensive policy and processes

    Prime Minister Turnbull’s planned independent parliamentary expenses authority is being foreshadowed as a compliance, reporting and transparency body. “It will monitor and adjudicate all claims by MPs, Senators and Ministers, ensuring that taxpayers’ funds are spent appropriately and in compliance with the rules,” according to the Prime Minister.

    Some may question the need for another government body to monitor travel, especially given the Government’s existing travel management resources.

    The Department of Finance has responsibility for all Federal and Agency procurement, including travel. The department has a comprehensive travel policy, comparable with most leading private sector organisations.

    It also has significant buying power through aggregation, and in 2014, adopted comprehensive Whole of Australian Government (WoAG) Travel Arrangements in a bid to reduce costs, improve service and create “fair, equitable and transparent processes”.

    While the details of the Prime Minister’s independent agency are yet to be revealed, it would be prudent to ensure that it works within the WoAG programme and embraces the policies and processes that are already serving the Government well.