By Han Aulby, originally published in the Guardian 15 June 2020.
Public trust in government is low. Regular allegations of MPs misspending public money do little to aid this. Reforms are needed to strengthen political culture and rebuild public trust.
There are ongoing allegations of misspending of public money, whether in relation to the $1bn sports rorts scandal, or in MPs using parliamentary entitlements for personal or political gain. Public money has allegedly been used to fund sports programs in marginal seats, trips to party fundraisers and tickets to industry events.
Despite reforms by former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull in 2017 that attempted to tighten the rules of parliamentary entitlements, and set up the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority, MPs continue to spend their allowances outside of the rules.
Much of this is fuelled by partisan competition and party fundraising, and the gaps in our accountability system that allow misspending of public money to go unnoticed or without consequence.
Australia’s two party system has bred a culture of intense partisan competition and an obsession with party fundraising. The lack of restrictions on political fundraising currently mean that parties are engaged in an unending arms race whereby whichever party can raise the most is at an electoral advantage. Candidates are preselected partly with their fundraising ability and connections in mind, and MPs are expected to do their part in bringing donors and cash to their team.
And the partisan competition means that if one side engages in conduct that aids their side, the other must follow suit or risk falling behind. If this conduct is against the rules but they get away with it, then the opposing party is disadvantaged if they don’t do the same.
So using public money to attend a party fundraiser or gain support from an industry or from voters in an electorate then risks becoming common practice.
What can be done to curb the misspending of public money for personal or political gain?
Taking the heat out of the political fundraising arms race is a good place to start. Caps on election spending stop the richest party from having an electoral advantage as both sides can only spend a limited amount. Couple this with increased public funding of political parties and there is no longer a great incentive to get ahead in the fundraising game at any cost.
We also need to fill the gaps in our system of holding MPs to account. Tightening rules on spending public money is only effective if it is met with strict enforcement and public accountability. MPs need to see that there are consequences for those that break the rules and engage in misconduct.
The Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority that Turnbull established does not have sufficient investigative powers to enforce the rules on parliamentary entitlements. It is limited in its function to auditing expenses and it cannot hold hearings or search for documents or information. A first step in enforcement would be to strengthen this agency and make its findings more transparent to public scrutiny.
A National Integrity Commission with teeth is the only agency that can properly investigate and expose serious or systemic cases of parliamentarians misspending public money. An integrity commission would have the strong investigative powers necessary to unpick the tangled web of party machinery, favours exchanged and money misspent.
Importantly, it would also be able to expose misconduct to the public. Public exposure is a crucial disincentive to political misconduct. MPs rely on public trust and public votes. No politician wants to be the centre of a media scandal. So the ability for the commission to hold public hearings, release public reports and make public findings in investigations into serious or systemic misspending of taxpayers money is important.
The Australian public has a right to know. We elect our politicians to govern on our behalf, and we pay our taxes so that we can live in a civilised society where services and infrastructure operate for the public good. When this public money is misspent for partisan or personal gain, it rightly angers and disappoints us. When this becomes common practice we sadly begin to expect no better behaviour from our politicians.
Accountability reform, starting with the establishment of a National Integrity Commission, is crucial to strengthen the integrity of our political culture and rebuild our trust in democracy.
• Hannah Aulby is the executive director of the Centre for Public Integrity