A FREE-FOR-ALL appears to have broken out following Speaker Bronwyn Bishop’s resignation between Liberal MPs pursuing ALP MP Tony Burke and bent on vengeance, and Labor MPs attempting to pin the “entitlements” scandal on the Liberal Party by “revealing” other government MPs who’ve made dubious claims. The warring groups should grow up, set politics aside, and enact a fix to ensure this kind of thing can never occur again.
It may be indelicate (or even old-fashioned) to point this out, but the tit-for-tat brawling that is going on over politicians’ entitlements in the aftermath of Bronwyn Bishop’s resignation as Speaker is, at root, a fight over the “right” to waste taxpayers’ money: and it is an indictment on members of Parliament on all sides that such a cavalier attitude remains glaringly evident even after the first few unapologetic miscreants — and their indulgent misuse of public monies — have been outed.
And both within the ALP and among its knuckle-dragging operatives out in social media land and the wider community, what is being peddled as what they think is a cleverly, finely nuanced distinction to bury Liberals beneath a pile of steaming effluent — that Bronwyn Bishop breached parliamentary rules governing the use of travel entitlements whereas Labor’s Tony Burke, they claim, did not — is a hypocritical position indeed, and the fact any of them seek to justify, defend or legitimise what Burke has been doing marks them out as filthy specimens indeed.
Indeed, the distinction Labor types make in seeking to crucify Bishop and salvage Burke is nothing more than the difference between complete bullshit and absolute bullshit. Whichever way you cut it, it’s all shit. Only the buckets it’s served up in are different.
The simple fact is that some of the claims that have been aerated over the past month (and where there are some, there are invariably others) have, as Prime Minister Tony Abbott observed in relation to Bishop, fallen within parliamentary guidelines but outside community standards; one might have hoped this factual assessment on Abbott’s part signalled the intention to clean up parliamentary entitlements once and for all, but his stout defence of Bishop right up to the point he was threatened with a revolt by government MPs summarily dashed that hope.
On Labor’s part, the fact all the questionable claims relating to its own MPs are apparently OK whilst the Liberals should be hung, drawn and quartered for their transgressions shows the ALP is even further divorced from reality and community sentiment than Abbott is.
Let’s be clear: it is no more acceptable to the tax-paying public for Tony Burke to book a first-class airline cabin for him and his mistress (irrespective of whether she is also his staffer) whilst his other staff “slum” it in business class than it is for Bronwyn Bishop to spend $5,227 on a helicopter flight from Melbourne to Geelong when a 55-minute trip in a ComCar at a fraction of the cost would have sufficed.
It is no more acceptable to the tax-paying public for Tony Burke to have spent thousands of dollars taking his family to Ayers Rock on the pretext he was “working” than it is for Bronwyn Bishop to spend $6,000 on a charter flight from Sydney to Nowra instead of taking a two hour trip by car.
It should be clear I am going to allude anecdotally to Bishop and Burke only, in the interests of simplicity; and for the benefit of any reader who might be inclined to itemise out the alleged sins of other MPs — Coalition or Labor — I would appreciate any comments being kept to the issue at hand, rather than taking the opportunity to sink the boot into some MP from the party you vote against just to be trivial.
And unbridled outrages like all of the allegations against both Bishop and Burke — even if they actually fall within official guidelines, as most or all of them do — merely illustrate why those guidelines must be overhauled once and for all, for they do not comply with mainstream community thought in any way, shape, or form, so I don’t want to hear anything by way of spirited defence of your favourite MPs either.
Nobody expects their elected representatives to slum around in two-star hotels, or to fly on the likes of Tigerair or Jetstar, or to be conveyed in the filthy taxis driven around major Australian cities by newly arrived immigrants who have no clue where they are going without recourse to a street directory, although I’m beginning to wonder whether such a prescription of tough love is exactly what is indicated.
Either way, those we send to Canberra (and, to be clear, to Spring Street, Macquarie Street, North Terrace and all the other state and territory legislatures) are not royalty, they are not rock stars, they are not celebrity figures — and they neither merit nor warrant treatment as such.
I’ve said before that I am perfectly happy to defend MPs travelling to Canberra, for example, on business class airfares; common sense dictates that putting them down the back of aircraft in economy is going to make them targets, and even the most popular and/or competent politician is liable to encounter some surly drunk spoiling for a fight with “a damned politician.”
It follows, therefore, that their staff should fly business class as well: after all, at least some of their time flying together should be made productive by getting some work done, and especially if taxpayers are footing the bill.
But if an MP is going to be away for a few nights, should taxpayers also foot the bill for a spouse and kids to tag along? I think not.
Should an MP staying in Canberra be allowed to claim the “away from home” allowance if they are staying in a dwelling they (or their partners) own? I think not.
A certain former Speaker used to fly to Canberra using two flights in each direction even when direct options existed because it doubled the quantity of QANTAS frequent flyer points he was able to accrue. Is this acceptable, and should it be permitted? No, and no.
But it’s all OK in the end, it seems, because Burke saw fit to repay the $90 he incurred in ComCar charges to ferry himself to a rock concert: frankly, the fact he did so, whilst he and everyone around him fight to defend his more profligate but equally unacceptable indulgences upon the taxpayer, is a poke in the eye to anyone concerned with standards of behaviour from elected representatives, or probity where their entitlements are concerned. $90 is a piddling drop in a bucket. Burke may as well have not bothered. The repayment was incendiary for its blithe disregard for more serious abuses he stands accused of.
Janet Albrechtsen, writing in The Australian, nails part of the point when she says the system as it currently stands encourages MPs to rort the system because so much of its guidelines are etched in grey; vague to the point of misleading — perhaps deliberately so — the regulations governing politicians’ entitlements effectively green light the kind of extravagance and luxury most people can only dream of. It is only when ridiculous stories of helicopter flights, family holidays for MPs at taxpayer expense and the like surface that anyone really seems to care. And that, in short, isn’t right.
Albrechtsen is also right when she states, bluntly, that the system stinks. It does. Bishop had to resign or be replaced. So must Burke.
But as she notes, Bishop went — in fact, had to go — because her continued presence as Speaker in light of the revelations of her flagrant abuse of entitlements was damaging the Prime Minister’s leadership of the Liberal Party. In reality, she should have resigned because what she has done was morally and ethically indefensible. The same can be said of Burke. But it is a telling indictment on the way our elected representatives behave that the reason for punitive action is to stem the political damage and not because somebody has done the wrong thing.
In some respects, I’m amazed at the need to even have to spell this out, and just to be clear, there are innumerable other lurks, perks, goodies and junkets I could have taken aim at here.
The point is that the system of parliamentary entitlements is rotten to its core, and whilst Labor is just as culpable as the Coalition or anyone else — and
Communists Greens who think all of this is a lark should start rustling up the cash to reimburse Sarah Hanson-Young’s pompously self-important, attention-seeking, troublemaking international field trips — it is the Coalition that finds itself in office, and to whom responsibility for fixing this mess once and for all falls.
When so-called Choppergate was at its zenith, I made a call in this column for a new entity — a Parliamentary Travel and Expenses Commission — to be set up, at arms’ length from the government of the day, to independently oversee and scrutinise expense claims from MPs for accommodation, transportation and other items that too regularly end up at the epicentre of a scandal because someone’s fingers have been in the till, however “legitimately,” to an extent that utterly offends expectations of decency, accountability and prudence from the wider community.
I stand by that call, and whilst one reader commented to the effect that “another bloody bureaucracy” was the last thing we need — and that MPs should simply “do what business does” — the regrettable reality seems to be that MPs as a group appear incapable of exercising any other instinct than the inclination to as much largesse as they can get away with (so I’m sorry, JohnB, but as much as I share your extreme distaste for bureaucracy and whilst I’d like to agree with you, I can’t).
But at the risk of expecting too much from politicians, entitlement codes could be standardised between the states and the Commonwealth, and a single independent PTEC charged with oversight of the lot: at least it would be just one additional bureaucracy, and there would be no ambiguity whatsoever about what constitutes acceptable conduct or otherwise.
Now, Abbott says MPs’ expenses should be treated “like businesses do;” one would hope he’s talking about the ordinary employees who get the odd hotel stay or airfare reimbursed, rather than the executives on company boards who make the largesse of politicians that everyone wants to sling muck over look positively plebeian by comparison.
Even so, it’s a start: and those still trying to score cheap and petty political points out of all of this need to lay down their arms, behave like mature adults rather than kindy kids, and come up with something that fixes this mess once and for all, and which nudges what politicians can and can’t bill to the taxpayer onto a far more modest and reasonable footing.
Everyone involved should bear one thing in mind: just because it’s “legitimate” now doesn’t make it right.
Finally, and for what it’s worth, Tony Burke should quit the Labor frontbench: it’s one thing to talk of amnesties and a cessation of political hostilities, but as the chief protagonist and noisiest outrage merchant where Bishop’s activities were concerned, he has forfeited any right to be shown leniency now his own avaricious conduct has been laid bare for all to see.