National

Senior public servants' vehicle allowances: a lesson in driving prices up

This month's Informant is a special remuneration edition, which canvasses the topic of our times: public sector pay policy. For the moment, though, we'll focus on just one crucial aspect of this national debate: the executive vehicle entitlement.

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We noted recently the ACT government had quietly legislated an increase to its executive officers' vehicle allowance, from a maximum of $17,500 a year to $21,500. Why? It said it was just following in the footsteps of the ACT Remuneration Tribunal, which had similarly increased MLAs' allowances. There was a good reason for that: the tribunal had abolished MLAs' private-plated cars after it realised they cost much more to provide than the allowance, and so agreed, as a trade-off, to boost the vehicle allowance.

But why would car costs be rising at all? Tribunal chairwoman Anne Cahill Lambert told us the allowance reflected "not just the purchase of the car, but obviously its upkeep. And it is those costs that have been on the increase because cars now have computers, because fuel costs have risen, and also registration and insurance costs continue to rise."

Mandarin mobile: A Subaru Forester, the car of choice among ACT executives (though they prefer white, not silver as ...
Mandarin mobile: A Subaru Forester, the car of choice among ACT executives (though they prefer white, not silver as pictured). The all-wheel-drives are often seen traversing the wild terrain of inner-north Canberra. 

That may sound sensible enough – but it just doesn't stack up. Bureau of Statistics data shows that, in Canberra, the price of motor vehicles has fallen steadily for almost two decades. The typical car now costs about 75 per cent as much as its market equivalent did in 1994. Also, the prices of spare parts have been static for about five years, while petrol costs exactly what it did six years ago.

Yet in the federal bureaucracy, too, senior executives have been demanding, and receiving, ever higher vehicle allowances on the basis of "recovering" allegedly increasing costs. Over the past five years, the median car allowance for an SES band 1 officer rose more than 10 per cent (from $22,856 to $25,250), for no clear reason at all. A nice little earner on the side.

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(Incidentally, the car of choice among ACT executives is a white Suburu Forester, which is pretty much the unofficial emblem of Canberra's inner north.)

The sherpa precedent

At a time many public servants are genuinely confused, even fearful, about making comments that may be seen as partisan, a senior official at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet has set a bold precedent. G20 "sherpa" Heather Smith waded into what was the nation's most prominent political debate last month to defend Tony Abbott against criticisms he had botched his G20 speech (i.e. his whinge about GP fees).

G20 sherpa Heather Smith.
G20 sherpa Heather Smith. Photo: Supplied

Labor leader Bill Shorten had called Abbott's address "weird and graceless" and potentially "a disastrous missed opportunity". In response, Smith briefed The Australian and the Financial Review, telling them the reporting of the speech was unfair and saying that, within the closed leaders' meeting that had followed, "every other leader that spoke in that room mentioned their domestic issues" (she had heard the ostensibly confidential conversations from a "listening room"). After Smith's briefing, the Financial Review even reported that the Indian Prime Minister was "thought to have spoken about" his reforms in Gujarat state, while other leaders spoke of the difficulties of raising productivity among ageing populations.

It seemed odd to us that the topics of these private conversations would become public, especially in a way that so suited Abbott, so we asked Smith if she had the leaders' permission to talk about their meeting. A PM&C spokesperson said: "At no point in time did Dr Smith divulge the detail of any particular comments made by individual leaders; indeed, during her discussions with [the media] she made clear she would not provide those specifics. She did confirm the overarching topic of the leaders' retreat was the challenges G20 leaders face at a domestic level when seeking to pursue reforms, and the range of broad policy areas raised across the leaders' group."

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Make of that what you will. But Smith did inject herself into a matter of obvious partisan difference, which guidelines on bureaucrats' public commentary clearly warn against. Hopefully, this is a sign that some of the more ludicrous paranoia around public servants' public comments is fading: we encourage staff to invoke the Smith precedent in future.

Some leniency, your honours

The Senate's finance and public administration committee became bogged down last month for a surprisingly long time on the matter of honorifics. Before its hearing, the Guardian had reported on Finance Department head Jane Halton's regular use of the title "Professor" in official documents over the years. Halton has two adjunct professorships – at the universities of Sydney and Canberra – and both institutions, prompted by the Guardian, had "reminded" her that the academic title "Professor" should not be used by those who hold the honorary, adjunct positions.

When Labor senator Joe Ludwig raised the issue, (Ms) Halton dismissed it as "an administrative error": "A journalist has decided to spend three days of his time creating a story where none existed, including harassing not only my office but also several universities in relation to this. I will say, senator, that, due to an editorial issue, sometimes what has happened in the past is the 'adjunct' process has been dropped off."

Undeterred, Ludwig continued to question her at length, such that the vexed Finance Minister, Mathias Cormann, threatened to take "every other question on this topic on notice because I do not think that we should waste any more time in relation to something that, quite frankly, is trivial".

Is it trivial? Perhaps. But the story certainly titillated our readers, who helpfully identified many other bureaucrats guilty of similar "oversights". The good news for them is we have decided to indulge in a little yuletide magnanimity: they have until the New Year to correct their "administrative errors" before we name and shame them all.

See something for the Public Eye? Send your confidential tips to psi.editor@canberratimes.com.au.