Gunner Government hides release of childcare reimbursement claims, won’t say if relatives paid

by | Feb 9, 2021 | News, NT Politics | 4 comments

The Gunner Government has refused to disclose if Labor ministers paid their family members to provide childcare services through a $5,000 childcare reimbursement entitlement, claiming that disclosing how they spend the taxpayer money would be an “unreasonable interference with their privacy”.

The NT Independent filed a Freedom of Information application with the Department of Legislative Assembly last September, seeking a breakdown of which MLAs in the last Parliament claimed reimbursements for childcare outside of regular business hours, how much, to whom and under what circumstances.

The $5,000 childcare reimbursement entitlement is on top of ministerial salaries that range from a base of $268,000 to $325,000 a year.

There is nothing in the entitlement rules forbidding reimbursement for an elected member if they paid a relative such as their mother or spouse to provide childcare services while the member is “at a work activity” outside of business hours, provided they report “the nature of the work activity or event, the duration [and] the start and finish times, amount paid and to whom”.

The government refused to publicly release that information, including actual figures and expense claim forms, but said claims had been made.

The NT Independent understands all the claims are from Labor ministers on the highest pay packets in Parliament.

‘Personal information’: Labor ministers refuse to release documents about how they spend public money

Department of Legislative Assembly director of business services Jacqui Forrest said that a total of 16 reimbursement claims were made by Territory politicians in calendar years 2018 and 2019 totalling $1485.

Official documents backing up those claims were not provided. It is also unclear under what circumstances the money was claimed.

“I am declining to provide you copies of the reimbursement claim forms and the names of the Members who submitted claims and the childcare providers,” Ms Forrest wrote in her decision letter in December.

“I consider that the information requested is personal information and the full release to be an unreasonable interference with the Members’ privacy.”

A request for an internal review of that decision – that pointed out the public interest in how public money was expended – was handed to Parliament House’s “director of building services” for unexplained reasons, who affirmed the original decision to suppress the release of public information.

Deputy Chief Minister Nicole Manison, who has taken home roughly $292,000 a year since 2016, declined to answer if she has claimed the childcare reimbursements or who she may have paid.

Ms Manison was treasurer when the NT’s deep fiscal crisis was revealed in late 2018, when she indicated tough financial decisions would have to be made to keep the NT from becoming insolvent. The government recently called for a freeze to public servants’ annual pay rises for the next four years, replacing it with a $1000 “retention bonus” due to the ongoing financial hardship.

The $5,000 childcare reimbursement entitlement remains for politicians, which was reaffirmed in the latest Remuneration Tribunal Determination.

Small Business Minister Paul Kirby and Tourism Minister Natasha Fyles also did not comment on whether they had made claims through the childcare reimbursement scheme or for how much.

Chief Minister Michael Gunner’s office ignored a follow-up request to release the information in keeping with its previous open and transparent policy and to avoid a drawn out appeal process.

All government and non-government MLAs are entitled to claim up to $5,000 on top of their base salaries of $162,696 for after-hours childcare. Ministers are paid a base salary of $268,448 plus a generous electorate and car allowance as all MLAs, as well as other perks including chauffeured car services, and can also claim the $5,000 reimbursements.

Mr Gunner, who takes home $325,392 a year, is also eligible for the $5,000 childcare entitlement.

The NT Independent has filed a formal complaint with the Office of the Information Commissioner seeking the public release of the reimbursement amounts.

 

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