Entitlements and the edge of absurdity

“This is getting to the edge of being absurd,” junior infrastructure and regional development minister Jamie Briggs told Sky News on Wednesday. Briggs was referring not to the slew of long lunches, music festivals, weddings, ski trips and triathlon events that have been charged to taxpayers in the name of “community engagement,” but the fact that the issue is receiving any attention at all.

“This issue is one that will get some attention for a couple of days but over time will lose its significance,” said Briggs. Spare a thought this week for Peter Slipper. 

It’s not only Tony Abbott whose extracurricular activities are coming under scrutiny this week (there’s enough dubious claims to fill an entire list totalling over $84,000). Abbott’s office was quick to point out that Wayne Swan took his two children to both the AFL grand final replay and the NRL grand final by VIP aircraft in 2010, costing taxpayers more than $17,000 for the weekend. Although it should be noted that Abbott’s family have also attended the AFL grand final and Derby Day for a claimed cost of $10,000.

Fingers are being pointed from all sides, but in this week of nitpicking and dobbing the most interesting comment was made by Abbott. When asked whether his parliamentary colleagues who also attended the now infamous Pollie Pedal event claimed allowances, he told reporters that it was a matter of personal judgement. When deciding whether his claims were an appropriate use of taxpayer-funded allowances, Abbott apparently asked himself, “Is this a frolic or a very serious act of community engagement?” 

Personal judgement is a curious political litmus test, and even on the most generous reading, it’s difficult to imagine that Abbott decided, “No, taking my daughter along to the Tamworth Music Festival in a chartered plane for a $9,347 weekend is certainly not a frolic.” In what has been revealed as a rampant culture of entitlement within parliamentary circles, one suspects that the judgement applied to this decision had more to do with whether or not Abbott thought he would ever be taken to task over the claim. 

For his part, Rob Oakeshott tweeted this week, “For what its worth, I didn't claim travel allowance when riding the Pollie Pedal in 1996. I considered it personal travel for a good cause.” The Greens, apparently not putting much faith in personal judgement, have said that they will introduce legislation for the introduction of a national integrity commissioner to investigative the use of travel entitlements. 

As more dodgy claims come to light and it becomes clear that our politicians have failed to demonstrate even modest restraint, a move towards accountability and transparency will be gladly welcomed. If only by the taxpayers.  

Michaela McGuire

Michaela McGuire is a journalist and the author of Last Bets: A True Story of Gambling, Morality and the Law and the Penguin Special A Story of Grief. Visit her blog, Twirling Towards Freedom.

@michaelamcguire

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