Pollies' expenses to be overhauled in wake of Ley scandal
CHANGES will be made to the rules around expense claims for federal politicians in the first half of the year, according to the acting Special Minister of State.
In the wake of growing calls for action on the entitlements system from a number of MPs today, Financial Services Minister Kelly O'Dwyer, acting as the Special Minister of State, said the Government would be updating the rules in the next six months.
Ms O'Dwyer refused to speculate on Health Minister Sussan Ley's claims for travel to the Gold Coast but said Australians expected the Government to spend their money wisely.
"The Parliamentary expense system needs to change," Ms O'Dwyer said.
The Minister said the Government was implementing changes to the system based on an independent review which made 36 recommendations last year and welcomed the support of crossbenchers in doing so.
She said a definition of "official business" was one of the key reforms needed.
"We welcome the fact that the crossbenchers have said they will support those changes and the clean-up of the parliamentary entitlements system," she said.
"We respect taxpayer dollars and we believe it is very important that the Australian people have confidence in the system that is in place."
Acting Opposition Leader Penny Wong and Shadow Special Minister of State Don Farrell released a statement saying it was "well past time" for the Government to act on the review.
"Nearly 800 days since Bronwyn Bishop took being out-of-touch to new heights, more than 500 days since 'Chopper-gate' forced Tony Abbott to order the Conde review, and more than 300 days since the review was completed, we are still waiting for the Turnbull Government to respond to the review," the senators said.
The statement said Labor was committed to improving transparency in the system.
'CALL THE POLICE'
Ms O'Dwyer's comments come as independent MP Andrew Wilkie said that police should be called on any politician that commits a serious offence with regards to expenses.
"It's not good enough just to pay the money back, it's not good enough to have a small financial penalty, not good enough maybe to step aside for 12 months until the next ministerial reshuffle," Mr Wilkie said.
He said it was long past the time for the government to act on the "very weak" entitlements system.
"I've been in Parliament for six years and it is no secret in Canberra that some MPs will, from time to time, perhaps often, travel wherever they want in the country and they will dress it up as an official trip," he said.
His comments added to a push to change the rules around federal politicians' expense claims is heating up, with key crossbencher Nick Xenophon vowing to introduce a bill for a major overhaul of the system when Parliament resumes.
The South Australian senator says he thinks there will be "keener interest" from politicians of both major parties after revelations about Health Minister Sussan Ley's claims for extensive travel to the Gold Coast.
And at least one Turnbull government Minister believes the rules governing entitlements for MPs need to be tightened and "strengthened".
Resources Minister Matt Canavan made the comments when asked about the ongoing Sussan Ley travel expenses scandal.
Asked during an ABC radio interview whether expenses need to be tightened, Senator Canavan replied: "They do."
"We had a review report last year which recommended some major changes to how we manage the work expenses system," he said.
"There's currently 12 acts of Parliament and three Remuneration Tribunal rulings that cover it.
"It does need to be streamlined; it does need to be strengthened. I'm sure that the Government will soon act on those recommendations in that report."
A Labor MP has also weighed in, saying the party was "open to the discussion" about establishing a federal anti-corruption watchdog.
Shadow Human Services Minister Linda Burney told reporters in Sydney the discussion around entitlements was "obviously going to be had" when parliament resumed.
"Nick Xenophon is talking about bringing back his bill to Parliament and obviously Labor is very open to that," she said.
But Ms Burney didn't go so far as to back an overhaul of the system.
"The best thing that members of parliament can do is understand the current rules and follow them," she said.
Last year's report made several recommendations to overhaul the entitlements system, including to change the terminology from 'entitlements' to 'work expenses'.
The review, launched by Tony Abbott in the wake of the Bronwyn Bishop 'Choppergate' scandal in 2015, noted the rules governing the system lacked "clarity" and "transparency" and acknowledged some parliamentary travel had been "inside entitlement but outside community expectations".
Another recommendation was to keep flight allowances for family and dependants but make them economy class, not business.
Ms Ley agreed to stand aside yesterday without ministerial pay until an internal review by the Prime Minister's top bureaucrat was complete.
Senator Xenophon told ABC radio he would reintroduce legislation drafted in 2015 to overhaul the system when parliament resumed.
"Having an independent watchdog, giving the public the right to make a formal complaint, having virtually real time disclosure and making sure that politicians pay penalties if they make a wrongful claim, I think are all pretty straightforward, common sense reforms," the senator said.
Senator Xenophon also said the latest revelations about four ministers - Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, Attorney General George Brandis, Communications Minister Mitch Fifield and Education Minister Simon Birmingham - claiming expenses for attending the Prime Minister's private New Year's Eve party in Sydney in 2015 "miserably" failed the so-called pub test.
"This is why so many Australians hate so many politicians," he said.
"They don't seem to be subject to what is commonly known as the pub test.
"This miserably fails the pub test, in fact, you'd be laughed out of the pub with this sort of claim.
"It may well be within the rules but the rules need to change."
SBS reports the four ministers billed taxpayers almost $7000 to attend the private New Year's Eve celebration.
Mr Dutton and Senator Brandis reportedly claimed return flights to Brisbane, COMCAR costs and a travel allowance to attend.
Senator Fifield claimed flights for him and a family member and COMCAR costs, while Senator Birmingham claimed a cab charge.
All four told SBS the event was "official business".
The majority of the 22 ministers who were invited to the gathering did not claim expenses to attend.
Australian Greens leader Richard Di Natale backed calls for the expense claim system to be overhauled as a way to restore public faith in politicians.
"What we've seen with a number of these scandals over many, many years is the need to have a major overhaul of the system," Senator Di Natale told ABC radio.
"The most, I think, effective way of restoring a bit of faith back into the political process is to establish a national anti-corruption watchdog.
"We can spend the next few days talking about Sussan Ley or we can talk about the fact that this is an ongoing, systemic problem that requires long-term change."