OPINION

The expenses lapdog or watchdog?

The dog days of January, when the political class is at the beach and the news cycle is quiet, are a favourite time for journalists to dig around for political scandals. Two years ago, Health Minister Sussan Ley and her trip to visit investment properties on the Gold Coast offered a tempting opportunity. The story ran for weeks and eventually led to Ley's resignation from Malcolm Turnbull's cabinet and the establishment of the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority.

This year, journalists tried the same tactic with an expose of Finance Minister Mathias Cormann's $37,000 special flight from Canberra to Perth via Adelaide in June last year. The flight's purpose was to allow Cormann to lobby South Australian crossbench senators on the supposed virtues of his proposed changes to corporate tax, changes the government later abandoned.

This time, however, the public response was more muted. The minister's spokesperson said the flight had been approved in the normal way. While Cormann himself said nothing, one of his cabinet colleagues, Dan Tehan, spoke up and defended the lobbying effort as justified expenditure in the public's interest and in support of lower taxes. Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen refused to buy into the debate, saying the great majority of such flights by both sides of politics were within strict rules. It was up to Cormann, Bowen said, to outline why this flight was appropriate in the circumstances.

Even Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young, usually good for a lofty expression of moral outrage, could only say she "wasn't sure" if it would pass "the pub test". More significantly, though the media carried occasional rebukes from disillusioned citizens, there was no sustained outcry from the various integrity groups. No one argued this was another reason to establish a federal anti-corruption commission.

The lack of strong public comment suggests that high levels of travel expenses incurred by politicians, especially ministers, are not necessarily seen as morally unjustifiable or as evidence of greedy snouts in the trough. The contrast with some other, previous, high-profile cases is instructive. Unlike Ley, who used taxpayer-funded travel, at least in part, for private gain, Cormann was clearly engaged in government business of no personal benefit to himself. Compared with Bronwyn Bishop's notorious helicopter trip from Melbourne to Geelong, Cormann's flight was on behalf of the government, not his party, and there were no alternative means of travel available, at least on that day. More generally, Cormann may have many critics but few, if any, would accuse him of being in politics for the perks. Overall, Hanson-Young was right to be cautious about the pub test. In this case, the drinkers propping up the bar might have a general grumble about fat-cat politicians but they would hardly work up any moral outrage.

Use of "special-purpose aircraft", formerly known as "VIP" aircraft, is outside the normal range of travel entitlements, being administered by the air force under the defence minister. The latest guidelines are comprehensive, while allowing a necessary degree of discretion. In Cormann's case, the relevant principles were the availability of flights on major domestic airlines, the priority of the entitled person and the importance of the occasion. Consideration can also be given to the number of people travelling, which can affect the comparison of cost with regular commercial air travel.

The misuse of VIP aircraft has a notorious place in the history of the Australian Public service. As Ian Hancock described in his excellent monograph, The V.I.P Affair, 1966-67, senior public servants at the time, including Sir John Bunting, who was secretary of the Prime Minister's Department and Robert Menzies' "prince of public servants", helped ministers to cover up evidence of questionable use of VIP aircraft.

Closely scrutinised: Vikki Campion and her partner, former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce. Photo: <em>Sunday Night</em>, Channel 7

Closely scrutinised: Vikki Campion and her partner, former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce. Photo: Sunday Night, Channel 7

Since those days, the use of such aircraft has become much more tightly controlled. However, controversies can still arise. In the Gillard Labor government, for instance, the then defence minister, Stephen Smith (another West Australian), flew regularly on VIP jets from Perth to Canberra at an estimated cost of over $1 million. Questions were also raised about the frequency of ministerial flights along the eastern seaboard, where commercial services were very frequent. No surprises, then, when Labor refused to cast the first stone at Cormann.

The Cormann case, though technically beyond the purview of parliamentary expenses and, therefore, the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority, provides a good illustration of how judgments in this vexed area should be made. In particular, discussion went beyond the standard rule-based approach that allows politicians to hide behind box-ticking processes conducted by administrators. This was the main weakness identified by the 2016 review of parliamentary expenses co-chaired by John Conde and David Tune. The review recommended a principles-based approach, according to which decisions depend on the application of general principles to particular cases, with responsibility taken by politicians themselves rather than by administrators.

Cormann's initial response, via his office, was an outdated claim that all boxes had been ticked. But the debate soon widened to a consideration of the particular context and the minister's judgment. Though Cormann himself did not take public responsibility, his colleague, Tehan, by offering a personal justification on his behalf, effectively brought him into the discussion.

The new legislative framework, set out in the Parliamentary Business Resources Act, which established the expenses authority, follows the Conde-Tune review in incorporating a principles-based approach. The main principles require parliamentarians to use parliamentary resources for the dominant purpose of parliamentary business, to consider value for money for the Commonwealth, to act in good faith, and to be prepared to publicly justify the use of public resources.

In practice, few politicians are called on to give a public justification of their particular items of spending. The great majority of expenses, as summarised in the reports published by the authority, are routine and uncontroversial. Nonetheless, such transparency is an important safeguard and constraint. It guarantees that the potential for public discussion is ever-present, depending on the curiosity of scandal-seeking journalists or political enemies.

Moreover, the authority itself now has the power to audit particular instances of questionable spending and to seek justification from the politicians involved. To date, the authority has conducted and published two such audits, into the controversial cases of former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce, and his staffer and partner, Vikki Campion. The audits cover claims for travel expenses during the period from May 2016 to February 2018 and go into considerable detail. In Joyce's case, the inquiry was complicated by the fact that the period covered both the former regime for assessing expenses and the new authority framework, which required the application of somewhat different criteria or "threshold questions". For expenses up to December 2017, the main issue was whether the travel was "primarily occasioned" by parliamentary business. From January 2018, it was also important whether the travel represented value for money.

The audits examined each trip and overnight stay, seeking evidence not only from the auditees themselves but also independent verification from relevant third parties and departmental records. Joyce's audit focused particularly on his use of car hire and his travel to Canberra during non-sitting weeks. The expenses authority wrote to him several times seeking clarification on particular items. It also interviewed him personally on two separate occasions.

With Campion, the audit was more straightforward. The main issues were whether the travel was authorised by her employing parliamentarian and whether it was intended to support the employer's official business as determined by the employer. Nonetheless, she was asked a series of specific questions and given follow-up interviews.

In the event, the audits cleared both Joyce and Campion of any wrongdoing under the act. Cynics might see this result as evidence that the authority is more lapdog than watchdog. But that judgment would be harsh. In the first place, the authority deserves credit for taking on such high-profile political celebrities as the subject of its first audits. Moreover, judging from the reported thoroughness of the inquiries, the two auditees themselves probably felt they were far from being let off lightly but were rather the victims of overzealous bureaucratic persecution.

The one possible weakness in the process is that, while the two individuals were held responsible and required to give detailed reasons, they answered in full only to the authority. The wider public has not been given all the detailed reasons and often needs to trust the authority's judgment that it was reasonable.

However, given the number of trips and overnight stays audited and the already considerable length of the audits (at over 20 pages in each case), such a level of detail may be impracticable. Besides, the audits do give sufficient evidence for suspicious or hostile members of the media or the public to pursue the discussion further. That the audits have not sparked any major controversy is probably due to a judgment that there is little here to shock the punters in the pub. Certainly, other parliamentarians and their staff, who will have examined the audits carefully, will be hoping to avoid provoking similar scrutiny for their own expenses. If so, that can be chalked up as a win for the fledgling authority.

Richard Mulgan is an emeritus professor at the ANU's Crawford school of public policy. richard.mulgan@anu.edu.au