Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Today by Russell Marks


Trying it on
Tony Abbott’s dubious record on travel entitlements, and political parties’ poor record on declaring donations, suggests the need for greater transparency and accountability

On Sunday, Prime Minister Tony Abbott flew from Brisbane to Sydney to attend NSW Premier Mike Baird’s election launch. He then flew to Melbourne on a VIP air force jet – which can cost $4000 an hour – where he attended a birthday party for a major Liberal Party donor at the Huntingdale Golf Club. Both flights were billed to public coffers, on the grounds that they involved official work-related business. But apart from listing “other work-related engagements” in Melbourne on Sunday, Abbott’s office has not provided details of that business to justify the Melbourne trip.

Abbott has often sailed close to the wind on travel entitlements. He used a private jet to attend a fund-raising event in August last year. He repaid $9400 he’d previously claimed while promoting his book, Battlelines (his publisher, Melbourne University Press, later picked up that tab). Uniquely among participants, he became notorious for claiming entitlements to participate in the annual Pollie Pedal charity bike race. In 2006 he claimed travel entitlements, which he later repaid, to attend two weddings – including that of Peter Slipper whom he later ferociously pursued for allegedly having misused taxi expenses. (Slipper’s conviction for having claimed $954 to tour wineries was quashed last month.) Small business minister Bruce Billson thinks criticism of Abbott’s use of the VIP jet on Sunday is “ridiculous”, but the Labor Party’s Waste Watch committee is demanding more information.

Labor is not immune from criticism of its own parliamentarians’ travel claims, but has argued, together with the Greens, independents and other observers, for tighter rules and more transparency. Motivating the movement to increase politicians’ accountability in the area of travel entitlements, lobbying and political donations is the concern that public officials should not use their office to inappropriately benefit private interests – their own or anyone else’s. Guardian Australia this morning is running the results of an FOI investigation that reveals major concerns about the way the main political parties have handled their finances and disclosed donations.

The Round-up

Political donations

A Guardian Australia FOI investigation reveals what Paul Farrell describes as “a pattern of errors by political parties in managing their financial records”. Individual stories detail particular problems with the Queensland LNP, the fact that Liberal and National parties tried to stop the release of AEC information and a series of compliance reviews issued by the AEC to various parties.

Bridie Jabour reports at Guardian Australia: “The New South Wales Electoral Commission is taking action against individuals and organisations, including unions, that it considers have failed to properly declare donations in the lead-up to the state’s election.”

Data retention

Daniel Conifer reports at ABC News: “The government is yet to reveal the cost of setting up mandatory data retention, with the bill set to pass as early as today.”

Daniel Hurst reports at Guardian Australia: “Senior Labor frontbencher Anthony Albanese raised strong concerns within shadow cabinet about the government’s mandatory data retention scheme.”

Emma Griffiths reported last night at ABC News: “Labor will vote with the Coalition after the two parties agreed to several amendments, including specific protections for the phone and internet records of journalists, in a bid to protect anonymous sources and whistleblowers.”

An AAP report at Guardian Australia: “Greens senator Scott Ludlam has helpfully provided Australians with a list of ways to hide their metadata.”

Jonathan Holmes comments in Fairfax: “The new data retention laws mean whistleblowers will become rarer and rarer.”

Bernard Keane reports at Crikey: “As the major political parties work to impose Australia’s biggest ever mass surveillance scheme on citizens, new polling from Essential Research shows the majority of voters want law enforcement and security agencies to get a warrant in order to obtain their data.”

Workplace relations

Thom Mitchell reports at New Matilda: “A deal which trades off retail workers’ penalty rates in exchange for higher base-rate pay is proof, the South Australian shoppies union said yesterday, that if employer groups negotiate in good faith their concerns over the cost of penalty rates can be addressed within the current system.”

Rob Burgess comments at The New Daily: “On economic grounds, both major parties should be considering such reforms, but can’t.”

Bridget Brennan reports at ABC News: “The Fair Work Ombudsman will begin a two-year investigation into whether the exploitation of migrant clothing workers is widespread.”

Submarines

Daniel Hurst reports at Guardian Australia: “Bill Shorten has called for ‘a bipartisan solution to the gridlock’ surrounding the acquisition of Australia’s next fleet of submarines, suggesting that Swedish designers should be included in the process.”

David Wroe reports in Fairfax: “Half the world’s submarines will be in Australia's region by 2030, Defence Minister Kevin Andrews will warn today in a speech underscoring the gravity of choosing the right boats for the nation’s next fleet.”

John Kerin reports in the AFR: “Australia’s peak defence industry group has urged Tony Abbott to reconsider buying or leasing a nuclear submarine fleet to replace the ageing Collins class, saying the absence of a supporting domestic nuclear power industry no longer presents a hurdle.”

Budget 2015

Malcolm Farr reports at News.com.au: “It took a slide show and a promise of family-friendly measures from Joe Hockey to calm backbench unrest over contradictory budget plans.”

Latika Bourke reports in Fairfax: “The government has further downgraded its pledge to fix the budget with Joe Hockey now promising a surplus ‘as soon and possible’.”

Phillip Coorey reports in the AFR: “The federal government is planning to extend a promised tax cut to all small businesses, regardless of whether they pay company tax or income tax.”

Greg Jericho’s analysis at The Drum: “As they prepare their second budget, Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey would know that governments that do not deliver strong growth are always judged harshly. Just look to Malcolm Fraser.”

Lewis & Woods’ analysis at The Drum: “Joe Hockey has begun to lay the groundwork for the May budget with a critical party-room meeting today, but voters have lost confidence in the economy and the man whose job it is to fix it.”

NSW election 2015

Heath Aston reports in Fairfax: “The NSW Liberal Party has risked reigniting leadership tensions within the federal party by using Malcolm Turnbull in a last-minute push to shore up votes in marginal seats.”

Kevin Brianton and Mark Civitella’s analysis at The Conversation: “The various campaigns for and against the privatisation of electricity presented in the current NSW election provide some insights into modern Australian democracy.”

Domestic violence

Jenna Price asks at Daily Life: “Why is the government lying to Rosie Batty?”

Seeking refuge

Andrew Greene reports at ABC News: “Nauru’s government has vowed to fix any problems inside an Australian-run detention centre, as the Senate prepares to launch an inquiry into claims of abuse and mistreatment at the facility.”

Stephen Easton at The Mandarin: “The Commonwealth might be liable under both civil and criminal law for consistently dangerous conditions in offshore detention centres, and lawyers say it is breaking its own workplace safety laws. The watchdog, Comcare, says it’s not that simple.”

Foreign investment

Sally Rose reports in Fairfax: “Regulators’ ability to uncover and prosecute illegal residential property buying by foreigners is ‘sorely limited’ and such sales are ‘inevitable’, the Foreign Investment Review Board chairman has admitted.”

Callam Pickering comments at Business Spectator: How to fix Australia’s foreign investment framework.

Education

Rodney Tiffen’s analysis at Inside Story: “Looked at over time and ranked against other OECD countries, public funding of Australian universities is at a record-breaking low.”

Ross Gittins comments in Fairfax: “Catholic schools’ superior bargaining power tends to spread gains to other religious and independent schools.”

Superannuation

Sally Rose reports in Fairfax: “Australians entering retirement will most likely be stopped from taking their superannuation as a lump sum and will have to access it through a structured self-funded pension, a top Treasury official says.”

Warwick Smith at The Monthly: “Why compulsory superannuation benefits the financial industry and the rich at the expense of everyone else.”

Regulation

Esther Han reports in Fairfax: “Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson said the inclusion in a ministerial taskforce looking at food labelling laws of Trade Minister Andrew Robb, who is in the final stages of negotiating the controversial Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), was to the detriment of consumers.”

Competition

An AAP report at Guardian Australia: “The ACCC intends to reject plans by Qantas and China Eastern to co-ordinate services between Australia and China, saying that could give the airlines the ability and incentive to limit capacity or increase fares.”

Gary McLaren’s analysis at Business Spectator: “The bid by TPG to takeover iiNet will see market consolidation in telecommunications move to a new level.”

Politics

Mark Ludlow reports in the AFR: “A ‘Melbourne Cup field’ of candidates is expected to throw their hat into the ring for the casual Senate vacancy in Queensland following the surprise resignation of Brett Mason.”

An AAP report at Guardian Australia: “Peter Wellington has been elected as the first independent Queensland Speaker in more than a century.”

Tim Dick comments in Fairfax: “To have such a partisan as Bronwyn Bishop in the Speaker’s chair is dreadful for the country, even if it suited Tony Abbott to award Bishop a $341,000-a-year consolation prize for omitting her from the ministry, and himself reduced scrutiny of his government.”

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an honorary research associate at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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