31 August 2012

The Sydney Morning Herald today report’s that Fairfax media engaged journalism students to collate the gifts and benefits obtained by Australian politicians but which are not published in an accessible form. Release of this material will focus public attention on the willingness of those in politics to disclose the personal advantages they receive. Apparently MPs have been content to provide manuscript returns which are not then processed in any way which provides the transparency intended by disclosure rules. What attracted the paper’s attention was the frequency with which MPs and their families received upgraded travel from Qantas. The greatest beneficiary of this was the wife of former Prime Minister Rudd.

The disclosure regime in New Zealand has more rigor than the federal requirements in Australia – and much more than most State parliaments require. However the value threshold in New Zealand of $500 for any gift – which includes hospitality – given to the MP or a relative (ranging from parent to grandchild) means much of the material “uncovered” by the SMH is not included in New Zealand’s readily accessible Register of MPs’ Pecuniary Interests. No air travel upgrades seem to feature in the New Zealand register – although if occurring in conjunction with any international travel the gift threshold would have been exceeded.

Both Australia and New Zealand are shown on an OECD compilation of transparency issues that politicians must disclose gifts and benefits.

The example which is considered “best practice” is the register maintained by the Scottish Parliament. Entries are recorded in plain English but without a limiting threshold; for example the return by Jackie Baillie the Dumbarton MSP includes benefits valued as low as $50.