Cost blowout for politician expenses system

The cost of the troubled new parliamentary expenses system has blown out beyond $50 million. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
The cost of the troubled new parliamentary expenses system has blown out beyond $50 million. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

The cost of the troubled new parliamentary expenses system has blown out beyond $50 million, prompting Labor to accuse the Morrison government of "badly mishandling" the process.

The blowout has been partly blamed on a fraud case linked to the program.

The Turnbull government promised a new digital system to monitor federal politicians' and staff expenses as part of an overhaul triggered by the "Choppergate" spending saga involving former speaker Bronwyn Bishop.

The new system, which allows users to manage and claim expenses, was expected to cost $38.1 million and be fully complete by January 2020.

But the project, which was expected to deliver savings, has been plagued by delays and cost blowouts. It's now not expected to be fully operational until July 2022.

Government figures provided to Labor Senator Don Farrell showed expenditure had reached $51 million as of March 31 - a 33 per cent blowout on the cost budgeted in 2017.

The new figure means the program's cost had increased $3.7 million in just three months, after a recent audit report showed $47.3 million had been spent as of December last year.

Under questioning from Senator Farrell at an estimates hearing on Thursday night, Finance Department official Clare Walsh confirmed the alleged cases of fraud involving former staff linked to the program had caused some of the cost blowouts.

"In terms of the original appropriation, yes, [there have been] delays associated with the loss of resources, [which] did cause delays and therefore cost overruns," she said.

Officials also blamed the COVID-19 pandemic for the delays. That explanation surprised Senator Farrell, who suggested the pandemic might have presented the "perfect environment for someone to sit down and write a computer program".

Finance Department official John Sheridan indicated the pandemic had affected the ability to train staff in Canberra.

The officials said an extra $12.4 million from within the Finance Department budget had been approved to complete the project. That was on top of an extra $5 million from the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority.

Ms Walsh couldn't say how much she expected the project would ultimately cost, but insisted her department was "keeping a very close eye" on spending.

She said the department was still targeting a July 2022 completion date, and noted six of seven project milestones had already been met.

The figures provided to Senator Farrell in response to questions on notice also revealed fewer than 60 per cent of travel claims were being processed on the new system. About 75 per cent of office claims were put through the portal.

"The parliamentary expenses system needed updating but the government has badly mishandled the process," Senator Farrell told The Canberra Times.

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This story 'Badly mishandled': Cost blowout for parliamentary expenses system first appeared on The Canberra Times.


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