ARM media group calls for end to MP funds abuse

AUSTRALIAN Regional Media has made an official submission to a review looking into federal MPs entitlements amid its exclusive revelations of a $19 million loophole in the system.

ARM -- the publisher of this website -- has more 12 daily newspapers and more than 60 non-daily newspapers along with more than 40 websites.

It has an audience of more than two million a week.

ARM Canberra-based reporter Daniel Burdon spent three months delving through all public claims returns from members and senators on the Department of Finance website, examining the period from July 2009 to December 2014.

He looked at how they spent their printing and communications entitlement.

His investigation has shown that of the $112 million members and senators claimed on the entitlement between 2009 and 2014, 17% - or $19 million - was spent during the two six-week election campaign periods in 2010 and 2013.

ARM editorial director Bryce Johns has written to the Review Committee developing options for an Independent Parliamentary Entitlements System.

"In the regional areas we cover, the MPs we investigated spent between 60% and, incredibly, 100% of their six-monthly entitlement during the six-week campaign periods of those election years,'' Mr Bryce wrote.

"Intolerably, none of the MPs we have tried to interview have wanted to explain why the huge slant to this spending is needed at this time.


"It is inconceivable to think anything other than they are using this money as a slush fund to boost their profile at election time, something that gives them a significant and unfair incumbency advantage."

The last independent review of the entitlements system, led by former public servant Barbara Belcher, reporting in 2010, recommended that the use of the printing and communications entitlement be banned during election campaign periods.

No government has since acted on this recommendation.

"Our investigation has revealed that since the Belcher report was given to the Gillard Government, the overall spending on this entitlement has doubled, or almost doubled, compared to the median six-monthly claims between 2009 and 2014, during the past two election campaigns.

"While the median six-monthly spend across the period July 2009 to December 2014 was $7.6 million, in the last half of 2010, this reached $15.1 million, with $7.7 million of that spent during the 2010 election campaign. In the last half of 2013, this figure also reached $16.3 million, with $11.4 million spent during the 2013 election campaign."

"Similarly, the number of parliamentarians gearing their spending on the entitlement towards the election campaign periods more than doubled from the 2010 election to the 2013 election.

"The number of parliamentarians who spent 90% or more of their six-monthly claims for the last half of an election year during the campaign period grew from 19 politicians at the 2010 election to 44 politicians at the 2013 election.

"While the committee's terms of reference do not directly include the use of entitlements during campaign periods, then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott spoke about "community expectations" when launching this inquiry. We submit it is outside of community expectations that elected representatives use this entitlement during campaign periods, especially to such a large degree."

It is clear the committee's stated goal of needing to provide clarity to MPs about their entitlements and how to use them appropriately has never been more needed than in this case.

" While entitlements spending is publicly reported, the spending on this entitlement lacks transparency, using terms such as "printed items" for a wide variety of documents produced under the entitlement, thus making it difficult to allow proper investigation of whether this money may have been misused."