GREENS MOTION: Renumeration Tribunal determination

Mark moved a second motion on behalf of the Greens today, to note the determination of the Renumeration Tribunal concerning accommodation reimbursement and allowances for country Members of Parliament. 


MOTION:

That this council notes the determination of the Renumeration Tribunal concerning accommodation reimbursement and allowances for country Members of Parliament made on 7 September 2020.


In Question Time today I asked the Treasurer a question about the recent Remuneration Tribunal determination about the country members' accommodation allowance. This motion is also on that topic; however, it simply calls for the determination of the tribunal to be noted. The reason I put this on the agenda is because it has struck me that the process for setting allowances and entitlements for MPs is far from ideal.

I know it is convenient for members to hide behind the process, to shrug their shoulders and say, as the Treasurer does, that this is an independent body and it has made its decision, which is final. However, it struck me that if the tribunal did get it wrong then we do have a duty to go back to them and ask them to look at it again. To make it clear, I am not suggesting they got any of the numbers wrong in terms of what they say is an appropriate amount of reimbursement, but I do think they have some of the policy settings wrong.

On Monday, as we have said, the Remuneration Tribunal handed down a number of reports and determinations that relate to parliamentary allowances, including the one that is the subject of this motion, which is determination No. 9, which covers allowances paid to country members. There can be nobody listening to this or reading about it later who is not aware of the controversy surrounding this allowance and those who have claimed it.

The possible misuse of the allowance has resulted in tens of thousands of dollars being repaid to the Treasury and a number of high-profile MPs having to resign their positions. It is the subject of inquiries both by the Auditor-General and the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption. So it was certainly time for the Remuneration Tribunal to revisit these rules.

One important feature of the determination is that it does now create a distinction between commercial accommodation, people who are using what is referred to as a second home in Adelaide and also other accommodation arrangements, such as staying with family or friends. Under the new arrangements in the determination, commercial accommodation costs will be reimbursed on a cost-recovery basis. In question time earlier today, I referred to the definition of 'commercial accommodation' being:

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.

But then, as I pointed out earlier, the curious exclusion to the definition in the determination says:

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

The observation that I made earlier was that it appears to me at least that the Remuneration Tribunal does not fully understand the nature of Airbnb or, perhaps, other online booking platforms. Airbnb encompasses multiple short-term accommodation options. At one end of the spectrum, you can rent or lease for a short-term an entire house or an entire apartment, and at the other end of the spectrum, you can rent for a short term a spare room in somebody's home.

I know that Airbnb is not a platform that is without controversy; however, in my experience, most, or at least many, Airbnb offerings are in fact exclusively reserved for arm's length commercial short-term rentals. Many of them are in fact listed on multiple online platforms, and some can even be rented directly from the owners or the agents.

I spoke earlier today with Derek Nolan, who is the head of public policy for Airbnb in Australia. He confirmed with me that it is indeed common for many hosts to offer their properties on multiple platforms, such as Airbnb, Stayz or booking.com, and that many hotels are also booked via these same platforms. He pointed out to me that it makes no sense to discriminate against Airbnb or Airbnb hosts, and he told me that Airbnb will certainly be writing to the Remuneration Tribunal about this.

I will not repeat all the questions I asked of the Treasurer today, but my feeling is that further work is needed by the tribunal and that that work may result in further amendment of the determination. That might be wishful thinking on my part, but I certainly believe that a case can be made.

A concern that I do have is that if this determination is allowed to stand it might become a default position for other bodies determining whether or not to allow staff to use Airbnb for work trips. If they see that the South Australian Remuneration Tribunal believes that it is not a genuine commercial or arm's length transaction, then it is possible that other organisations, other parts of government, for example, will ban Airbnb for their staff as well. When I say ban, I mean that refusing to reimburse the costs of accommodation is effectively a ban, because nobody is going to pay for work accommodation themselves if they are not going to be reimbursed, when they can stay in the equivalent place next door where they will be reimbursed.

I do accept the Treasurer's assessment that probably nobody claiming the country members' allowance has ever claimed for Airbnb. However, this determination ensures that they never will in future. I also accept the Treasurer's assessment that most country members will continue to maintain a second home in Adelaide rather than access commercial rental. This will still be the preferred option, I expect, for most members. However, it will now be reimbursed at a lower rate than before—I think it is about $50 a night less. Nevertheless, I think there is a principle and a precedent at stake, and unless challenged it could become accepted public sector management practice that Airbnb is somehow not commercial.

It is purely a matter of speculation on our part as to why the tribunal went down this path. My best guess, without speaking to anyone there, is that they imagine that what could happen is that a person could list on a platform like Airbnb their back room, or part of their home, that that would be taken up by a friend who happened to be a country member of parliament, and effectively we would have a dodgy non-commercial arrangement dressed as a commercial arrangement. That is my best guess as to why the tribunal went down that path. They thought it could facilitate dodgy Airbnb listings to effectively provide free accommodation to members of parliament, who could then continue to collect the country members' allowance.

It may be that that is a genuine concern that needs to be addressed, but my position would be that blackballing a particular platform in its entirety is not the way to achieve that objective. Because I have put this on the agenda as noting of the determination, I invite other members to use the opportunity of this motion on the Notice Paper to raise any other concerns they have. I certainly have some other concerns. As I say, they are not so much about the amounts they have set, but I do think that the tribunal fudged the double dipping issue.

I do not think they addressed the fact that all members of parliament were compensated for losing travel allowance. That was not taken into account, because that allowance can simply be pocketed and whether it is country members, ministers or others, members are able to claim additional allowances for the travelling that they do do. I think that is double dipping. It is clear to all of us: the travel allowance was cashed out, but I think morally it still should be allocated to work expenses.

I note that the tribunal quizzed me when I was there about submissions I had made five years earlier, and with the rigour of a Perry Mason cross-examination they did extract from me an acceptance that some of the things I had asked them to do they could not do under the legislation, because the legislation was stitched up in such a way that they had very little discretion. Yet, they did have discretion over the country members' allowance and how to set that, and they studiously avoided the double dipping issue.

I accept that the tribunal cannot undo what the parliament decided, yet I think they could have decided that members should first exhaust their travel allowance as cashed out five years ago and now incorporated into the common allowance—that members should spend that first before claiming any other accommodation or travel allowances.

I think it is a shame that they did not do that, but that is as much as I want to put on the record for now. I invite other members, if they wish, to make any reflections on the determination and whether it fairly deals with the matters it is concerned with. I do not intend to bring the motion to a vote anytime soon, but I would be more than happy to discuss with members or for members simply to stand up on a private members' Wednesday and add their contribution to this motion.