QUESTION: Members' accommodation allowance

In Question Time today, Mark asked the Treasurer about the Remuneration Tribunal's recent determination on accommodation allowance paid to country Members of Parliament.  

The Hon. M.C. PARNELL: On Monday, the Remuneration Tribunal handed down a number of reports and determinations in relation to parliamentary allowances, including determination No. 9 of 2020 which covers allowances paid to country members. One important feature of that determination is that it creates a distinction between commercial accommodation, second homes, and other accommodation arrangements such as staying with friends or family. Under the new arrangements, commercial accommodation costs will be reimbursed on a cost-recovery basis. The tribunal has defined commercial accommodation as follows:

Commercial accommodation means short-term (not permanent) accommodation in a commercial establishment such as a hotel, motel or serviced apartment and must be a genuine arms-length commercial transaction.

I think it is fairly clear what that means, but the definition goes on to provide an exclusion. The determination states:

Commercial accommodation does NOT include Airbnb or other 'sharing economy' type accommodation.

What I find curious about this definition is that it appears that the Remuneration Tribunal does not properly understand the nature of Airbnb, which encompasses multiple short-term accommodation options from the short-term renting of an entire house or apartment down to renting the spare room in someone else's home. In my experience, many Airbnb offerings are in fact exclusively reserved for commercial short-term rentals. Many of them are listed on multiple online platforms or they can be rented or leased directly from the owners or the agents.

My questions to the Treasurer are:

1. Does the Treasurer support the exclusion of Airbnb from the definition of commercial accommodation?

2. Will the Treasurer consult with the staff of the Legislative Council, who will have to administer this new scheme, to determine its workability?

3. If it transpires that the Remuneration Tribunal has made incorrect assumptions about Airbnb and other online accommodation platforms, would he support a supplementary submission to the tribunal to further clarify what type of accommodation is appropriate to attract the country members' accommodation reimbursement?

The Hon. R.I. LUCAS (Treasurer): The Remuneration Tribunal decision on Monday I think provides much greater clarity in relation to a number of issues as it relates to the accommodation allowance. I think to be fair to the independent tribunal—it is not controlled by the government, the opposition or indeed crossbenchers—they were quite explicit in their determination.

Whether the Hon. Mr Parnell, or indeed I, differ with their interpretation or their ruling in that respect or in any other, they for whatever reason have been quite explicit in terms of their ruling. I think it is patently clear what they were intending, and that is that Airbnb won't be allowed.

I would have to say that in my experience, which has been sharpened somewhat by events of recent months, in terms of various claims over the years made by Liberal, Labor and crossbench members of parliament, I am not aware of anybody who has claimed or has availed themselves of Airbnb for the country accommodation allowance. I cannot say definitively that that's the case, but I have been exposed, if I can use that word, to many examples of claims going back some many years—as I said, from Liberal, Labor and crossbench members—and I am unaware of any particular claims.

It may well be this is an interesting point that the Hon. Mr Parnell has raised, but possibly it goes nowhere because it hasn't been an issue and is unlikely to be an issue. My experience with claims has been that the overwhelming majority of members—Liberal, Labor and crossbench—are in the category of either owning or purchasing accommodation in the metropolitan area, and I think that the long experience has been that they have all claimed entitlement to the country accommodation allowance. There was some question raised in media circles and elsewhere as to whether that was permissible or not, and the tribunal has clarified it.

In relation to the issue, as I said, I am happy to reflect on it, but it is a decision of an independent tribunal whether I agree with it or not. I don't know their reasoning, but it is their decision and I have no immediate concerns with it.

Secondly, in relation to the Legislative Council staff, or indeed the parliamentary staff in both houses, I suspect in the end it is not going to cause them any grief because I do not know that they will actually be confronted with the circumstances. Should the circumstances arise, it may well be that they may want to seek clarification from the tribunal.

There was a letter written by a member of parliament a number of years ago that went to a former chair of the tribunal, and that member did receive some correspondence. I shouldn't reflect on the answer, but there was correspondence that was returned. So there has been a precedent where a tribunal chair has responded to a letter from an individual member of parliament, so I guess it must be permissible. Should the circumstances arise where it needs to be clarified, then I am happy to reflect further upon it but, as I said, it is an independent tribunal. I don't know the logic behind this particular aspect of their decision. I suspect in the end it may well not be of great significance unless somebody seeks to claim it.