Statewatch found New South Wales local councils are less open about their finances than several other countries.
After the majority of councils rejected requests for information, we looked at Scotland, the UK and America who proved it was possible to be transparent.
The Scottish Parliament’s system is easily accessible to the public and publishes (in detail) the expenditure of its parliamentary members (known as MSPs) online.
Their move to transparency came after a scandal over the taxi expenditure of David McLetchie, the Scottish Conservative leader, who resigned over the matter.
Similarly a scandal in the UK led the House of Lords to publish financial figures online.
In 2009 expense claims made by members were leaked and published by the media. This showed that there was misuse of allowances and caused public outrage.
As a result, Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles wrote to councils demanding they publish items of expenditure over £500.
He said “There is a need to banish the veil of secrecy and revolutionise local government… local people should be able to hold politicians and public bodies to account over how their hard-earned cash is being spent and decisions made on their behalf”.
From January 2011 councils in the UK were obliged to publish claims for daily attendance allowances and travel costs monthly and in 2012 MP Bob Neill announced that the £500 threshold was lowered to £250.
These expenses are accessible online through the UK Parliament website:
For example this is an excerpt from the House of Lords financial report for May 2012:
This Information is provided on a new system known as COINS, which gives an annual breakdown of public spending decisions.
The data published on COINS is downloaded and opened as a detailed spreadsheet:
London’s Buckingham Palace has also made the commitment to being open about finances with the decision to publish the civil list accounts annually.
The Queen’s civil list is a 40 page document that shows how the palace spends the £7.9m it receives every year from taxpayers. Prior to this it was traditionally published once every ten years and kept in the House of Commons Library.
The change came as a result of public criticism after The Guardian revealed the Queen avoids paying tax on £1.5m of her private income.
Sir Michael Peat, former keeper of the privy purse, pioneered the opening up of the civil list as an attempt to modernise the monarchy and make it more accountable.
All of the Queen’s expenditure can be found in the documents including staff wages, stationery and purchases for her drinks cabinet.
The breakdown is published in less detail online:
Overall the UK is not as transparent as the Scottish Parliament but they still provide more information than local councils across the state.
The City of Sydney Council for example has a page in it’s annual report titled ‘Council Expenses’.
This section of the report only provides a combined cost of councillor expenses and “This includes domestic travel expenses such as accommodation and registration fees for seminars and conferences, as well as office administration such as postage, meals and refreshments. It also includes staff salaries…” however it does not break these sections down or show the spending of each councillor.
The City of Sydney Council’s 2011 annual report reveals that the total cost of expenses for City Councillors was $3,032,729, but this figure is not broken down any further.
Sutherland Shire Council is similar to this.
The 2011 annual report shows Councillor Fees and Expenses as a single figure for all councillors rather than showing individual expenses for different allowances.
The only individual breakdown provided by the council is a separate figure for the Mayor and his Deputy but these do not show what money was spent on.
The system in the US is also very transparent compared to NSW local councils.
In the House of Representatives, by law Senators, Members, Committees, Leadership, Officers and Offices have to provide their records in a quarterly public report, known as The Statement of Disbursements (SOD), that includes all receipts and expenditures.
Members, officers, and staff must also file reports which detail travel-related expenses reimbursed by non-government sources and charitable contributions.
They also have to report travel expenditure for all official foreign travel and there is a limit placed on both domestic and international travel.
Staff and Members must also record gifts received, mass mailing expenses. legal expenses and necessary expenses (reasonable expenses for food, lodging, or transportation).
The House’s Office of the Clerk stores this information on it’s website.
The public can easily access these reports:
When the user clicks on one of the reports, they are brought to a search engine:
All reports in that quarter will then come up:
This is an excerpt of the results that will come up in each report:
On the contrary, some countries are not even as transparent as NSW.
Greece for example, does not publish the salary and privileges of members of Parliament. In fact, the public do not even know how much MP’s earn.
There has been a lot of recent media coverage about salary, allowances and benefits of members of the Greek parliament with most MP’s saying that their salaries are too low.
Parliamentary members in Greece have said that cutting back their benefits will cause “parliamentarian poverty” because they are subjected to many expenses to run their offices.
Far-right leader G. Karatzaferis made a proposal to the parliament to send a letter to the media detailing MPs pay, allowances and benefits, however this request was rejected last year by Gr. Niotis, the deputy speaker of parliament.
Although Greece is not open about finances, they do allow the public to see what activities MP’s have engaged in on the Hellenic Parliament MP Parliamentary Activities Search.
Scandals sparked changes overseas, so should NSW wait for a scandal before they become more open with the public? – Candice Cokinas, Jake Combe and The Newsroom‘s Statewatch team.