20 October, 2013
OK, we’re starting to get to the pointy end of the political travel rorts scandal.
My understanding of the Don Randall matter is this. In November 2012 the Perth MP and a family member flew to Cairns for an overnight stay. . He claimed the $5259 trip was “electorate business”. A week after returning from Cairns, on November 26, he updated his pecuniary interests register, saying: “My wife and I have taken possession of the house at the Cairns location. We intend to rent the house as an investment.”
When Fairfax revealed this after a tip-off from a citizen journalist, he said: “The claims relating to travel were appropriately acquitted with the Department of Finance.” That statement was false, because political travel expenses are self regulated – the politicians claim, and Finance accepts the claims without question, unless an allegation of irregularity is raised. (see Exclusive: Abbott forced to repay $9,400 he charged taxpayers to promote his book).
Under pressure, he paid back the money saying: “I will immediately issue a payment to the department to reimburse the entire costs incurred for that visit to ensure the right thing is done by the taxpayer and alleviate any ambiguity. I’ve always acted in good faith when submitting claims and, after an extensive review of all my expenses, I’m satisfied that those claims meet the guidelines.”‘
Yet he refused to say what electoral business he had in Cairns and the Prime Minister refused to take questions on the matter.
So, we have what on its face is a fraud on taxpayers, the payment of money for a private purpose.
We know that the AFP can investigate complaints of fraud on taxpayers by politicians independently of a Finance Department referral, because it did just that in relation to allegations that Peter Slipper charged taxpayers for private tripos to wineries around Canberra in 2010, when he was a Liberal backbencher. We also know that it investigated claims by James Ashby in 2012 that he misused cab charges in that year, while Speaker (see the AFP documents released under my FOI request) .
Yet last week the AFP claimed the opposite – that several complaints by members of the public, and by Labor backbencher Rob Mitchell about wrongful travel claims by the Prime Minister and the Attorney General, were not in its remit to investigate:
“The Department of Finance is responsible for the administration of entitlements for members of the Australian Parliament. These matters were forwarded to the Department of Finance. The AFP is not currently investigating these allegations.”
This statement is incorrect. As Finance Department official David Tune noted in evidence to a Senate Estimates Committee in May this year (from p. 107) about the Slipper matter:
“It was an AFP investigation from the very start. AFP spoke to us and sought some information, which we provided, and some of our records. Then the AFP made the decision whether to refer it to the DPP, which they did, and we are not going through the (Minchin Protocol) process. It was a reversal of what we would normally do, and therefore we had no role in it whatsoever, other than to provide information to the AFP.
“It is just the circumstance in which it arises. If someone makes an allegation, not to us but directly to the AFP, it is for the AFP to decide what they do with it.”
The then Finance minister Senator Wong added:
“The issue is that any citizens can ask the law enforcement authorities to consider a breach of the law, as is appropriate. Whatever people’s views might be about there being other ways that might be better to deal with a particular issue, these officers operate within the context that any citizen can do that, should they wish.”
Therefore, a complaint to the AFP about the Randall matter should trigger an investigation.
Even if the AFP referred the matter back to Finance, the department could still refer it back to the AFP for investigation, even under the now notorious Minchin Protocol, under which Finance can decide to allow MPs to repay false claims without further consequences. Mr Tune said:
“The less serious allegations are handled via a process of the Special Minister of State writing to the relevant senator or member and seeking an explanation, providing them with information around the entitlement and what kind of entitlement could be available. The senator or member is provided with a chance to consider that and to provide an explanation if there is an explanation. There is a different process in place, as the secretary indicated, in relation to serious matters. When we talk about serious matters, those are the kinds of matters that might suggest there has been fraud or some other criminal offence committed.”
The question now is, in the absence of any explanation by Randall, does Finance have any choice but to refer the matter to the AFP for investigation?
As it stands, the parallel with Slipper is exact. We have an allegation that Randall deliberately charged taxpayers for private business.
It seems clear that Finance and the AFP have an obligation to act. It is up to the Press Gallery to interrogate both.
It is also up to the press gallery to insist that the Prime Minister comment on the Randall matter. On its face, this matter proves that his statement that political travel does not need reform is nonsense.
UPDATE 24 October 2013
The PMs comments on Randall and MP expenses reform
Are you going to watch his expenses closer than the Members of Parliament? I can’t understand why you just won’t tighten them? Not Opposition Leaders, not Prime Minister’s – backbenchers.
Neil, I appreciate that the public are always concerned and annoyed whenever there are stories of politicians allegedly misusing entitlements. Now, I am not saying that we are never going to change the system. I am always vigilant for ways to improve. The difficulty is that whatever the system is there is always going to be arguments at the margin and the only proposal that has come up so far is the Greens proposal for an Integrity Commissioner. Now, this was one that they actually put to the former government with whom they were in alliance and not even the former government thought it was a great idea.
You could find an answer if there was a will there. It is not on the margins to fly from Perth to Cairns to buy a house on the taxpayer and then pay it back.
The gentleman in question tells me that he didn’t do that. That he went from Perth to Cairns to have some very important discussions with the whip.
Haven’t they got a telephone?
Neil, look, there are some discussions that are best done face to face. I can remember in December last year coming down to Melbourne for a fantastic event that you might be familiar with.
Yes, you came to a Christmas lunch but that was in your role as…
But you can’t have that on the phone. I mean there are certain things which just have to happen face to face and look, Members of Parliament are entitled to travel to have important meetings because teleconferencing is sometimes no substitute for a face to face discussion. Now, I am not defending any particular action and look over the years there have been a lot of things which look contrived, I have got to say. All I am saying Neil, is that whatever the system is there is going to be arguments at the margins. I am not ruling out improvements but no one has come to me yet with a proposal which I am confident on balance would take things forward.