Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Where is the Hyperbole! The MP's Expenses Scandal and the Lack of Reaction

Normally this topic is reserved for confected outrage, where mountains are made from molehills, and national threats are made from banana peels.

In this case, however, I am surprised at how little noise has come from the Opposition about Bronwyn Bishop's expenses.

Privately, I think that is because if they made too much noise, they would all end up with egg on their faces - this sort of 'expenses' rorting can't be isolated to the Coalition!

There are a few cases of egregious 'expenses' rorts which I want to highlight. The first is the Peter Slipper scandal, whereby he used about $1,000 in taxi charges to attend wineries. To put this in context, this became a public issue only after he 'betrayed' the Coalition and accepted the speakership, thus handing Labor a majority in the house. He effectively became 'public enemy #1' to the Coalition, and of course this
made him a target. He was also an easy target, because he was 'on his way out' and not likely to run for another term. This resulted in a good behaviour bond, 300 hours of community service, an order that he repay the money, all of which was wiped away when his conviction was overturned on appeal in February.

The second is Mr Hockey's use of 'living away from home' allowance, which he pays as 'rent' to his wife, who owns the property. Whilst this is, strictly speaking, allowable, I think this is an absolute cash grab, and should be shouted down by the masses. This is the rich, making themselves richer at the tax-payer's expense!

Finally, we have Bronwyn Bishop, who has a category all of her own. Firstly, her temerity in charting a helicopter to a Liberal Party fundraiser highlights, to me, a serious lack of judgement, It had to have been the most expensive way of travelling! Also, it didn't even save much (if any) time, given she would have had to travel to the airport, and from the airport at the other end. How much time could she have saved? Why did she need to save that much time? Why should the taxpayer pay for her to attend a Liberal Party fundraiser?

Then there is her trip to Europe, costing $88,000. What makes this so appalling is that she did it for the purposes of running for the presidency of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which she failed to achieve. Her costs included $25,400 on accommodation and food ($705/person/day), $42,400 on airfares, and the fabled $1,000/day on chartered limousines.

The use of 'Expenses'
Ok, while all of this slagging off against the Coalition is fun, we have to accept the need for the taxpayer to pay for our elected officials and our public service to have some of their expenses paid. When our Prime Minister travels to international conferences representing Australia, it is only natural that we should pay for him to do so. Given the incredibly tight itineraries, it is also acceptable for them to travel first class, as they will often get straight off the plane into a meeting, and need to be refreshed and comfortable. I don't have a problem with that.

What I do have a problem with is the use of these privileges for non-official purposes. Catching a commonwealth-funded flight to Canberra to attend a meeting with ministers: Fine. Having your accommodation paid for whilst doing so: Fine. Having your travel all over the country to promote policies: Fine. But the use of these privileges for personal or partisan-political ends is disgraceful.

I think we need to have 'official use' defined much more stringently. Attending fundraisers for charity: Fine. Attending fundraisers for your political party? Not ok. Why should we pay for you to raise money for your own re-election?

'Official Use' is probably very hard to determine, but I am sure that a test could be established tying the use to the stated roles of you in your job. The Speaker's role, for example, is to be an independent, unbiased arbitrator of debate in the House. It does not extend to promoting one policy over another. As Speaker, it is understandable to use that position for charity, because that is part of what our political leadership should be doing, but anything else? That is private use, and should be paid for our of election funds.

Hockey's case is different. Whilst I agree that accommodation should be paid for, when parliamentarians are required to be interstate, it galls me that he is using it to enrich himself. It is the culture of 'take what you can' that should be stamped on. There should be a 'needs' approach, not just an 'entitlement.'

By way of context and contrast, my mother is a public servant, and she is regularly (IE weekly) flown to Canberra for meetings with her minister, and other members of her team. She does as much as she can by AVL, but necessarily has to travel regularly anyway. I don't have a problem with that. But instead of taking her travel allowance for as much as she can, she usually stays with family, and drives herself to and from work. She hires a car (fine), but has now purchased (with her own money) a GPS so that when she does hire a car, the taxpayer doesn't have to pay the additional $15/day for a car with a GPS! She diligently records when her family provides meals for her, even though she is not, strictly speaking, required to! She travels cattle class, instead of business class, despite being entitled to, simply because the trip from Adelaide to Canberra doesn't call for such an expensive luxury. She even has my sister drive her to the airport, instead of catching a tax-payer funded cab!

That is the culture we should be seeing in parliament. The use of expenses should a) be for official uses only, and b) should be used only when needed.

What makes these scandals even harder to bear is the staunch refusal to apologise, or admit wrongdoing.

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