Seselja breathes a sigh of relief

Seselja breathes a sigh of relief

The sighs of relief from the Leader of the Opposition's office at the Legislative Assembly were almost audible on Tuesday. An independent audit of staffing arrangements in Zed Seselja's office going back to 2009 found that there had been ''no overpayments or other entitlements inappropriately extended to staff as a consequence of compliance failure'', and that there was no ''firm evidence'' a senior staffer, Tio Faulkner, had been undertaking work for the Liberal Party while otherwise regarded as being in the employ of the Leader of the Opposition.

Taken in isolation, those paraphrased comments from the executive summary of Ron McLeod's audit report certainly seem to corroborate Mr Seselja's strongly held view that his office's administrative failings were not, as his political opponents have insinuated, a deliberate fiddling of entitlements to benefit the Liberal Party but rather an embarrassing oversight seized on by Labor and the Greens as a pretext to smear the Liberals. Certainly there is a suggestion by Mr McLeod that in their eagerness to criticise Mr Seselja in the Assembly, some MLAs may have made inappropriate use of parliamentary privilege.

There is little disputing, however, that taken as a whole, this report criticises Mr Seselja's office far more than it absolves, and that this criticism is clear and unequivocal. It notes the ''serious failure'' of the Leader of the Opposition's office to comply with the timely submission of attendance records in accordance with official requirements, its ''indifference'' to the urgings of the Clerk of the Assembly to attend to the matter, and is critical of its failure in taking so long to resolve matters.

Indeed, Mr McLeod notes that only when the matter became public in February, following publication of an article in The Canberra Times, did Mr Seselja's office act promptly to bring timesheet records up to date. And while the review accepted the explanation of Mr Faulkner regarding discrepancies between timesheets and his actual presence in the Assembly - noting, indeed, that he probably claimed less credit for hours than he had actually worked - it asserts that ''the quality of records … used to back up his timesheet entries was not highly reliable and was often inconsistent''.

It should be pointed out that Mr Seselja's office was not alone in its failure to comply with established personnel practices, and that the habit of staffers taking leave from their political bosses to work for their respective political parties is both accepted and widespread. Moreover, the audit found that it was a ''relatively common practice'' for other members' offices to be late in submitting timesheets. However, in only a few cases were these lapses as significant as those reported within Mr Seselja's office.

All of this suggests that perhaps the Assembly's staff records requirements are opaque and burdensome. In fact, the audit states they are simple to understand and that the compliance obligations are ''not particularly onerous''. Mr McLeod has less faith in the existing code of conduct related to party political activity, however, and has recommended that it be reviewed and clarified. He has also recommended that consideration be given to appointing an independent ethics commissioner - even though MLAs have had access to a part-time ethics and integrity adviser (in the person of Stephen Skehill, a former secretary of the federal Attorney-General's Department) since 2008. Few MLAs have bothered to seek his counsel in that time. The ethics and integrity adviser's annual report shows four members sought advice in the 2008-09 financial year, while only two made contact in 2009-10.

That Mr Seselja would consider himself more sinned against than sinning throughout this episode is only to be expected. Certainly he has acknowledged his failure and given undertakings they will not be repeated. He can also be forgiven for arguing that there is an element of hypocrisy in the claims made against him. This audit has cleared his office of any overt wrong-doing, but questions remain. The biggest is the failure to heed the repeated urgings of the Assembly Secretariat and the Clerk to correct bureaucratic shortcomings. In his audit, Mr McLeod struggles to explain that failure, suggesting the answer ''might lie more in a culture of non-cooperation that must have existed in the office and a lack of sensitivity to the level of accountability expected when the management of publicly funded resources are being expended''.

The absence of any plausible explanation by Mr Seselja may count against him in the minds of some voters as they weigh his ability to manage the territory as a potential chief minister. Others will ponder whether attempts at political point scoring in the Assembly by Labor and the Greens went too far.