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Transparency in limbo as MP expense data held from public

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The system that has exposed many a politician wrongly claiming exorbitant parliamentary expenses is currently out of action (Screenshots via YouTube)

A botched system upgrade has created a backlog of parliamentary expense claims that won't be made public until later this year, writes Belinda Jones.

AS MOST AUSTRALIANS are aware, federal politicians are paid handsomely for their work, sometimes pocketing additional allowances and enjoying unlimited expenses budgets.

The Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority (IPEA) is responsible for approving, collating and publishing parliamentarians’ expense claims. However, due to a botched system upgrade’, there is still a massive backlog of claims not expected to be brought up-to-date until later this year.

IA contacted IPEA for comment on this issue.

The response was:

'The postponement in publishing reports was due to a delay with the reporting functionality of the Department of Finance’s Parliamentary Expenses Management System (PEMS).’

The Department of Finance is the responsible department for the PEMS used by IPEA for parliamentarians’ expenses. The PEMS upgrade was the subject of a recent Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) audit, which found the cost of the PEMS project had blown out from the original budget of $38.1 million to a whopping $74.3 million.

The ANAO audit also found:

‘Project governance, planning and risk management arrangements were in place, although they were not impactful in driving successful project outcomes.’

According to IPEA’s website, the next update of parliamentarians’ expenses, for the October-to-December 2022 quarter, will be published in the ‘week of 4 March 2024’ and the January-to-March 2023 quarter will be published in the ‘week of 1 April 2024’.

So, almost two years into the Albanese Government – which campaigned on a platform of “transparency” at the 2022 Election – transparency is still yet to come for parliamentarians’ expense claims.

In past years, IPEA provided records for many parliamentarians’ expense claims, that could then be scrutinised by the general public, media and parliament to ensure compliance with the few rules pertaining to parliamentary expenses.

Without these expense claims being made publicly available promptly, it becomes increasingly difficult to hold the powerful to account and ensure that public money is being spent within the rules.

And there are plenty of examples of parliamentarians who have tried to claim expenses only to have to pay them back.

Former Nationals Member for Dawson George Christensen was the subject of an IPEA audit report published on 2 January 2020, covering the period 1 January 2014 to 31 December 2018. He was required to repay an amount of $2,170.44 in claimed expenses that ’failed the dominant purpose test’  and were found by the audit to be misused funds.

Nationals Member for New England Barnaby Joyce has often garnered headlines regarding his parliamentary expenses. In 2013, it was reported that he refused to repay expenses claims for attendance at State of Origin and NRL matches. He had also claimed travel expenses to attend two weddings under ‘Shadow Minister — Official Business’

In 2018, Joyce was cleared of misusing his taxpayer-funded expenses when an independent investigation found a ‘substantial change’ in the amount of time Joyce spent in Canberra. Joyce claimed 58 nights in Canberra in 2017, up from 12 nights in 2015 and 2016, a total of $16,000 for time spent in Canberra when parliament was not sitting. It was later revealed that during that time, Joyce was having an affair with his then-staffer, Vikki Campion.

In 2013, former WA Liberal MP Don Randall was required to pay back $5,000 for a trip to Cairns with his wife that he had claimed as “electorate business”.

In 2022, former Liberal MP for Bowman Andrew Laming refused to repay “invalid” expense claims of over $8,000 after an IPEA investigation found that Laming ‘obfuscated, provided inconsistent answers or ignored [questions].

Laming’s Federal parliamentary career ended in 2022 after a series of scandals. Laming is currently running for mayor in the 2024 local government elections.

Also, in 2022, former Liberal Senator Amanda Stoker repaid $2,600 in expenses claimed, plus a penalty for part of a trip that was deemed to be “personal”.

In 2011, 65 MPs, including former Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard and several senior ministers, were forced to repay almost $100,000 in “wrongly-claimed family expenses”.

In 2013, former Liberal Senator and then-Attorney-General George Brandis was forced to repay $1,700 in expenses he had claimed to attend the wedding of a shock jock friend. Barnaby Joyce also came under fire for claiming expenses for the same wedding.

In 2023, Nationals Leader David Littleproud partly repaid expenses he claimed for a trip to the Gold Coast soon after purchasing a property on the Glitter Strip.

In 2011, Fairfax Media reported that then-Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott had claimed more than $23,000:

'...on trips associated with the 2012 Coffs Coast Cycle Challenge, the 2011 Bathurst V8 Supercar Race, the 2010 Melbourne Cup, the 2010 Boxing Day test match at the MCG and the 2011 Birdsville Races.’

That same report also revealed the current Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus had ‘wrongly billed taxpayers for accommodation on a family ski trip’ — an amount totalling $466.

These examples of parliamentarians making expense claims to IPEA clearly show that MPs and senators don’t always ensure their claims are within the very broad rules. 

Therefore, it is imperative that the PEMS is effective, fit for purpose and that parliamentarians' expenses are published promptly to allow scrutiny of these claims by media, parliament and the public.  

So, when will IPEA’s reporting be up-to-date? That is the $74.3 million question.

You can follow Belinda Jones on Twitter @belindajones68.

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