TOM ELLIOTTT: Senator, good afternoon.
SENATOR SCOTT SENATOR RYAN: Good afternoon, thanks for having me.
ELLIOTTT: Out of interest, do you know why we have seasons?
SENATOR RYAN: It’s that the earth’s tilted with the way it revolves around the sun, isn’t it?
ELLIOTT: That’s exactly right, it is. A surprisingly high number of people including many university graduates don’t know it.
SENATOR RYAN: Well I did an arts degree, so I put it down to a good year 9 science teacher.
ELLIOTT: Really? What did you study in university in arts that made you then want to be a politician?
SENATOR RYAN: Economics, politics and history, mainly.
ELLIOTT: Oh ok well there you go. You studied politics and now you’re practising it. Now firstly I understand that you were, until a while ago, the minister for youth affairs. Is that correct?
SENATOR RYAN: It wasn’t in the title, but yes, I was responsible for that federally when I was parliamentary secretary for education.
ELLIOTT: Do we still have a minister for youth affairs?
SENATOR RYAN: Look there’s no-one with that title. A few years ago we went back to having what I might call more traditional titles; education, training, foreign affairs, trade and tourism. In previous years they’d sort have got too long, you’d almost need a concertina of business cards – you know, youth and various different types of education. So both Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull brought them back to what I would call classical titles.
ELLIOTT: So instead of having a minister for youth, we deal with having what is usually important to youth, including education, training and jobs and that sort of thing. That’s done by those relevant ministers?
SENATOR RYAN: Absolutely. In my time there were a few programs, but they’re mainly run up to state level, ranging from child protection, right up to some of the post-school transition programs.
ELLIOTT: Do we need a minister for women?
SENATOR RYAN: Well I think when you look at the range of challenges that’s been in place since the 80s, whether it’s been the wage gap, appointments to government boards, some of the health challenges – it’s a longstanding practise that there’s been a minister for the status of women or a minister for women. With youth, can I say, one of the questions I used to ask people, and I used to get asked this a lot, why don’t you have it in your title? If I look at the challenges young people face, they tend to be related more to their background, their family history, their health, their education, their ability to get a job –
ELLIOTT: (interrupts) But couldn’t we say the same thing about women as well?
Well I think to be fair, women are half the population and I think when we look at the changes in society – women going to work, my mother’s generation was the first to go to work en masse – that there’s probably more issues facing women as a gender than young people.
ELLIOTT: We’ll take some calls on that in a moment. I mean, if as the Senator says, we don’t need a minister for youth affairs, do we actually need a minister for the status of women? 9690 0693.
Now a subject very close to my heart is politicians’ expenses. I understand you’ve introduced some reforms today, tell us about that.
SENATOR RYAN: So earlier in the year you’ll remember we discussed the independent authority to oversee the rules starting from July, so it won’t be a minister or a politician making a decision on themselves.
Today we brought in another round of legislation which is a new definition of parliamentary business, and bringing together half a dozen acts of parliament and sets of rules which go back to the ‘50s, so that there’s a single, modern definition which the independent authority will oversee. People can ask for advice, and then that will report monthly on how we spend your money.
ELLIOTT: Ok well let’s go back firstly; who makes the decisions about what is an appropriate expense and what is not. Who does that now?
As a general rule, the members of parliament do. But there are just so many sets of rules, written rules and conventions. Now you can use, for example, there’s a different rule for whether or not a taxpayer will pay for an airfare, versus whether they’ll pay for a hotel.
ELLIOTT: Ok well I have a question about that in a moment, but ok so what is the independent body that provides – is it advice, or does it actually administer the rules?
SENATOR RYAN: On travel, it will do both.
ELLIOTT: Right. So who is it?
SENATOR RYAN: Well we passed legislation in February. I’m in the process of setting it up, so it will be up and running on an interim basis in the next few weeks, but it will take legal force in July.
ELLIOTT: Will the people in charge of this body to administer politicians’ expenses, will they be independent to politicians?
SENATOR RYAN: Yes, they’ll be appointed by politicians – someone’s got to appoint them – but they’ll be there for a fixed term and they’ll be independent of us.
ELLIOTT: So if they say, Senator you’ve done the wrong thing, that’s it? Right, ok.
Now second, are we going to get better definitions of what is an expense and what is not?
SENATOR RYAN: Well yes. One of the challenges at the moment is that it is very, very grey.
You mentioned the difference between – and this gets some people into trouble – whether you can get in a car, get on a plane or pay for a hotel, use travel allowance to pay for a hotel, there are different sets of rules. That doesn’t make any sense, so having one will matter.
There are four different types of duties we think politicians have related to their work in parliament; related to serving their constituents; related to their official duties if they have an office, like a minister or a leader of the opposition; and then there are some small duties they have related to being Liberal members of parliament, because we might be a member of our state conference, for example. Or federal leaders are usually members of a federal conference.
ELLIOTT: Ok well let’s take that, I mean, for example if you fly, you’re a Victorian Liberal MP, if you fly back to Victoria to attend the Liberal State Conference, surely that’s a private expense and not a political expense?
SENATOR RYAN: Well no. Coming home, you’re always allowed to come home under the rules –
ELLIOTT: Right, but if you choose to go to Victoria to attend the Liberal Party’s own party conference, is that a private or a public expense?
SENATOR RYAN: I might give you a different example Tom, which is, can I fly interstate for a national conference of the Liberal Party?
ELLIOTT: Let’s say it’s interstate, let’s say it’s in another state …
SENATOR RYAN: I’m going to the national conference of the Liberal and Labor party? That’s always been allowed because those bodies are the organisations that endorse us, and usually you have most members of parliament have a role either incidentally or directly …
ELLIOTT: Bu I think that’s wrong. Your party political expenses, for example, during the election campaign we have this weird thing where you don’t formally announce the start of a campaign until about two days before an election because the public pays for the expenses up to that point and then doesn’t pay it for them afterwards. Now I mean campaign …
SENATOR RYAN: Well actually, again, that’s a bit of a misnomer. The only - this will sound a little bit pedantic – but the convention, and again it’s one of those unwritten rules, is that you don’t claim the overnight travelling allowance for after the campaign launch. We still are allowed to travel at public expense after the campaign launch, we just don’t claim overnight allowance. I don’t know what the basis of that is, but it goes back decades.
ELLIOTT: Well can I run this by you? It’s come to light today that the Greens leader Senator Richard di Natale, 2 years ago flew what the papers are describing as his ‘manny’, so the British male nanny, a young man named Benjamin Whitbread, and he flew him up to Canberra with his two children and his wife and the taxpayer funded the travel of the ‘manny’, or the male nanny. Now is that an appropriate use of public money?
SENATOR RYAN: Tom, I’m reluctant to comment on an example in the paper when I don’t all the facts. And so I generally want to avoid that. There is family reunion travel it’s called. People can bring their family to Canberra or in a very small number of times, bring them interstate with them. That’s been changed and that will be changed so that it’s no longer calculated on the basis of travelling business class but economy class.
ELLIOTT: But they’ll still be allowed to travel, but just economy rather than business?
SENATOR RYAN: Back in, after people remember the Choppergate incident? Then-prime minister Tony Abbott had an independent inquiry into all this. That came down in March last year. That independent inquiry that had some business people, former bureaucrats and the head of the tribunal that makes determinations about everything from politicians to judges to senior bureaucrats, made a decision to not remove that, but to reduce it.
ELLIOTT: We’ll go to some calls shortly, but can I just put an idea in your head? As someone who’s run a number of businesses before, there are very strict rules from the Australian Tax Office about what types of expenditure are tax deductible for business purposes and what types are not. Why don’t you simply adopt those rules for politicians because they apply to everybody else?
SENATOR RYAN: Because - I think we had this discussion once before, Tom –the cost for me going to Canberra from Melbourne is tiny compared to the cost of people coming from Kalgoorlie, coming from Broome or coming from say Townsville or Cairns. And it is almost, in fact I think it’s impossible, to come up with a single-set budget that would allow everyone –
ELLIOTT: No, no, it doesn’t have to be a set budget, it should be that you must be travelling for a work purpose not a personal purpose.
That’s what this definition does. This definition has a dominant-purpose test which the authority will oversee and enforce, which is ‘what is that dominant purpose for which you travelled?’
ELLIOTT: Alright well we’ll talk about this more in a moment, 9690 0693. We’ll take your calls as well 13 13 32.
We’ll go back to calls for Senator Ryan in a moment. He’s got, well I think he’s got a bold new plan to try and rein in pollies’ expenses.
Two issues, one is that they’re going to have an independent body that will both administer and advise on expenses; secondly, all political expenses will have to have a dominant purpose test. So unlike, for example the former health minister Sussan Ley who flew at public expense to visit an investment property that she subsequently bought on the Gold Coast, they will have to be travelling for official purposes.
Daniel, good afternoon.
CALLER: Yes, good afternoon Tom. If I was to go and work in our Sydney office, and I had my parents or my family come and visit me for the weekend, I wouldn’t be able to claim that on tax, why do politicians get that?
ELLIOTT: Yes that’s a good question. Senator, why do we pay for families to be flown around when businesses can’t tax deduct that same expenditure?
This comes up a lot. I’ll be honest, it’s one of the more difficult things to explain so I’ll attempt to now. A long time ago, well pre-dating my time in politics, the independent tribunal included this for members of parliament – I think it’s particularly acute for those from far-flung states and cities or towns, where they will literally, like a lot of my colleagues from Perth, spend two weeks away from home at a time. It’s just not worth flying home and back on the weekend. This was built into it to make a difficult family situation for families a little bit easier. It’s a limited number of trips a year. I think it’s three for children and I think maybe six or nine for spouses.
ELLIOTT: And until recently they were business class, were they?
SENATOR RYAN: They were historically business class …
ELLIOTT: This is ludicrous. I mean, my rule was all domestic travel had to be economy, and overseas travel I think had to be more than six or eight hours before you got a business class airfare.
SENATOR RYAN: Well look members of parliament are allowed to travel business class where it exists. You’ll find a lot of them are working. I myself do, I’ll be honest –
ELLIOTT: Yeah well I was working on work trips too.
SENATOR RYAN: Yeah and I used to Tom when I was in the corporate world. But I when find myself in economy there are some things I can’t work on when I am not jamming myself up against the window –
ELLIOTT: What because someone puts the seat back too far?
SENATOR RYAN: No because someone might see what I’m working on.
ELLIOTT: Right so you’re saying because things in politics are so secret, you can’t sit in economy?
SENATOR RYAN: No. I will defend the business class travel because
ELLIOTT: Come on. You know it’s because you don’t want to deal with real people and you don’t want people hassling you.
SENATOR RYAN: No that’s not it at all. People see you, recognise you – politicians see a lot of people and there’s usually a good chance for them to do so. But if you want to look, particularly at my colleagues from Perth who have a four hour flight one way and a five hour flight the other way, to do that 40 times a year or 20 times a year return, that’s pretty taxing.
ELLIOTT: Thank you for the call Daniel. Michael, go ahead.
CALLER: Good afternoon. In all private enterprise we have an accounts payable clerk who gets about $60,000 a year and they actually check the monthly expenses report of all the partners. Why haven’t we got that in government? A simple person, low-wage, every month checks an expense form.
ELLIOTT: Well I know Senator you’ve set up this thing called the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority, has that got accounts payable clerks on $60,000 a year?
SENATOR RYAN: There are already people that do that. But even more important than that, what happens now every month is that every member of parliament has to sign a report which literally has every flight, every taxi, every photocopy, all your postage, all your phone costs, and every MP has to sign that every month now. And that’s what forms the basis –
ELLIOTT: But that hasn’t stopped MPs from ripping off the system. I mean it didn’t stop your colleague Sussan Ley from ripping off the system.
SENATOR RYAN: To be fair I wouldn’t agree with the way you described Sussan’s conduct earlier.
ELLIOTT: I tell you what, we have a test in here called the pub test and her conduct did not pass that.
SENATOR RYAN: No, I agree. And this is one of the things, we need to keep the rules flexible. It’s different being a member in the northern suburbs of Melbourne versus being somewhere that is bigger than half of Europe if you’re out in Western Australia. Those people travel –
ELLIOTT: Yes but when you’re going to buy an investment property it’s not –
SENATOR RYAN: No I appreciate that, but the rules are flexible and so what we’re doing is saying there’s an independent authority overseeing them, we’re going to publish them every month and we’re going to have to answer for them.
ELLIOTT: Can I ask you just a general question about expenses? When you run your own business you watch every cent because it is effectively your money. So I remember when I used to have to travel for work and I owned a big chunk of the business, if I spent $10 grand extra on a first class airfare, that was effectively $10 grand out of my pocket. So I thought long and hard about it. Do you think when it just becomes the inexhaustible money tree that exists in Canberra being the grateful taxpayers of Australia that people forget what fiscal discipline is really about? I’m talking about politicians here.
SENATOR RYAN: With respect I don’t, Tom. Firstly I’ll say when ministers travel overseas, it’s business class not first class. That was a rule brought in by us. But I think most of my colleagues overwhelmingly appreciate two things – it’s public money, and if you’re going to do something wrong with it, you will get caught. I don’t know many politicians that want to go back to an airport because most people will fly at a minimum, 25 to 26 times a year to Canberra. So people don’t look for excuses to get on a plane in my experience.
ELLIOTT: Eric, hello.
CALLER: Hi Tom. I manage a business in Victoria and the head office is in Western Australia. And I used to go to meetings monthly. I had to fly cattle class. There’s no difference between me flying cattle class and MPs flying cattle class.
But Eric MPs have secret things that ordinary people aren’t allowed to look at. Did you have any secret information like that?
CALLER: Oh, plenty of secret information.
ELLIOTT: Right, but Senator Ryan is that the reason that because you’ve got, I don’t know, secrets of state that you’re beavering away on?
SENATOR RYAN: Well Tom I was just using that as an example. I think it’s the medium of travel – members of parliament, particularly from the outlaying states travel an extraordinary amount. I know people who, when they fly back to Perth for the weekend to do constituent work, to go to the school fete, to go to the school deb, will have 30 hours on the ground before they get back to the airport and fly back to Canberra. That’s pretty gruelling. And I’m not dismissing that other people travel a great deal for work, but in my experience and I used to travel a lot in a corporate job, it is a lot more now as a member of parliament. And these decisions are actually not made by politicians. They’re made by the same people who decide how much judges get paid, senior bureaucrats and the like.
ELLIOTT: But who are those people? We never seem to hear who they are. I mean it’s always said it’s done by an external party or sorry and independent party, but I’ve never ever seen anybody put their hand up and say I am one of those people that decides how much politicians get paid.
SENATOR RYAN: If anyone wants to jump on the Google machine and put in Remuneration Tribunal, you’ll bring up the people and you’ll bring up all the rulings they make.
ELLIOTT: Just very quickly, in February you set up the independent parliamentary expenses authority, the IPEA and you’ve now got, which I think is a very good test, the dominant purpose test so that expenses are only claimable if they fit the dominant purpose of parliamentary business. Do you think that, assuming these rules now follow, that we will have less of the sort of rorting that’s gone on in the past?
SENATOR RYAN: Yes. I think the degree of public scrutiny has changed behaviour. When you look back 20 years ago Tom, and I briefly worked up here 20 years ago for a while, things that people would do were very different. Community expectations have changed. Having regular reporting, an independent authority, making it transparent so that I have to explain to someone these very difficult and challenging issues, as well as all my colleagues, I think that actually changes behaviour.
ELLIOTT: Well I will look forward to seeing that in action. Thank you Senator. Senator Scott Ryan, Special Minister of State, he’ll be joining us again in a few weeks’ time.