The Politics    Thursday, August 6, 2015

Another day, another expenses scandal

By Sean Kelly

Source
The national debate needs to move on soon

Yesterday, I wrote that the prime minister and his education minister had chosen not to attack Labor frontbencher Tony Burke over newspaper stories about his travel expenses, “probably because they know that there will be many MPs on both sides vulnerable under the new standard being set”, that standard being less about sticking to the rules and more about keeping within community expectations.

Yesterday that was just basic political common sense (I was far from the only one making the observation). Today it’s a fact. Here is a brief rollcall of expenses stories around today:

Labor frontbencher Tony Burke has agreed to pay back 90 dollars he claimed to attend a Robbie Williams concert, and has conceded the fact taxpayers paid for his kids to fly business class to Uluru was not within community expectations, though he says it was within the rules. There are reports that Joe Hockey changed his story about a charter flight he charged taxpayers for. In the midst of all this controversy, Tony Abbott attended a Liberal party fundraiser, which he travelled to “with the police”. The Telegraph reports that “Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young charged taxpayers $2700 in flights, accommodation and Comcars in Sydney on the same weekend she received free VIP tickets to attend the 2013 Mardi Gras.” That paper also says “Labor frontbencher Brendan O’Connor has charged taxpayers to fly and accommodate his family in the tropical north of Australia every winter since 2011.”

Two Labor frontbenchers, two Liberal frontbenchers – the prime minister and the treasurer! – and a Greens senator, all facing questions about their expenses.

Some of this is the simple way of things: a story gathers momentum and becomes very hard to stop. Some of this is the result of politicians pushing the rules to their furthest boundaries. Some of this is the result of the rules themselves being far too vague, and often far beyond what community expectations might suggest they should be.

Completing the entitlements review that the prime minister ordered is now urgent. That review must attempt to ensure that the guidelines cleave as close as possible to what the community expects of its politicians. At the same time, it must not fall into the trap of simply giving into sometimes-too-easily-fomented rage. The truth is politicians have complex jobs with odd demands. Helicopters are clearly not a necessity. But occasionally taking the family on a work trip, when a minister works all the hours of the day and is often away from home for months of the year, is less clear-cut.

There must also be some attempt to separate official responsibilities from party political responsibilities. Tony Abbott and Barnaby Joyce are right to say the line is not easily drawn, and that attending fundraisers is, in a sense, part of their job. But the argument against taxpayers paying for this travel is not one of fairness to individuals. It’s about political power. Incumbents already have significant advantages. Those advantages should be kept to a minimum. There is no reason an elected representative should have taxpayers subsidising their party’s fundraising efforts where their challenger has no such luxury.

Meanwhile, the nation grinds onwards. Unemployment rose today. The immigration minister actually released some information about boat turnbacks. A line needs to be drawn under this expenses scandal, and soon. The review is not simple, and must be both nuanced and authoritative – nevertheless, it must be completed soon.

 

Today’s links

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.

@mrseankelly

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