AFTER WEIGHING public interest, the political interests of the Liberal Party, and justifications offered by Health minister Sussan Ley for “errors of judgement” that see her seek to reimburse a raft of expense claims in order to save her political career, this column believes the minister has offered too little, too late to atone for actions that should never have occurred. In the interests of probity and the integrity of the political process, she must resign.
Note: since this article was published just after 8pm on 8 January, additional allegations of travel entitlement misuse against minister Ley have been raised in the mainstream press; I will keep an eye on these, and may post again in the next day or so. – YS
At a time in which Commonwealth finances sit at a tipping point — with the haemorrhaging federal budget unlikely to be brought into surplus by piecemeal fiddles announced by Treasurer Scott Morrison, and with Commonwealth debt now beyond the half-trillion dollar mark and continuing to soar — to say nothing of the prospect of a downgrade to Australia’s international credit rating later this year, the self-indulgent and gratuitous abuse of public monies, by political figures on all sides, simply must be terminated.
I have spent the past week observing the growing fracas around Health minister Sussan Ley and the apparent misuse of parliamentary travel entitlements that has been uncovered in relation to the “impulse purchase” of a $795,000 penthouse apartment on Queensland’s Gold Coast, and was very close to calling for the minister to resign or be sacked in this column late last night.
However, in light of a statement from Ms Ley issued this afternoon (and you can read that here) — I am now satisfied that the minister’s mea culpa is insufficient to atone for her cavalier misuse of taxpayers’ monies, and that it has been offered primarily in an attempt to salvage her political career rather than from any genuine sense of regret.
In this sense, if Ms Ley’s commitment to standards and decency in public office is as authentic as she claims, then tomorrow must bring her resignation from Malcolm Turnbull’s government.
Readers may access a selection of the mainstream media coverage of this issue here, here and here; these detail a slew of Comcar, air travel and accommodation-related expenses claimed by Ms Ley over the past couple of years totalling several thousand dollars, including a charter flight from Canberra to the Gold Coast — which her statement today fails to mention altogether — that cost some $12,000, and which she claimed was booked because commercial flights were “not suitable.”
And just to complicate things even further, the Nine Network is reporting tonight that Ms Ley last year billed taxpayers more than $76,000 for a seven-day trip to the United States: needless to say, this claim elicited no mention from Ley today either, and the quantum of the amounts involved suggest that at the very least, literally no expense whatsoever was spared on a trip that cost more than $11,000 per day — including $40,000 for flights, which is obscene.
Whichever way you cut it, this entire episode stinks: and in all honesty, the lipservice paid by the minister today to quaint notions of accountability and value for the taxpayer dollar raises more questions than it answers.
This column has consistently demanded more emphasis be placed on lifting standards in Australian politics, and whilst I have been derided by Labor types for applying the blowtorch to ALP miscreants as and when indicated, the desire for better accountability and less of a sense of entitlement at the expense of the taxpayer applies equally to all parties.
The unsatisfactory mentality that appears to have developed around travel entitlements since guidelines were changed by the Abbott government in response to a slew of travel expense scandals of its own — that offending MPs can refund the improperly claimed expenses in addition to paying a penalty, and otherwise get off scot-free — makes the kind of incident that now surrounds Ms Ley likely to become a more frequent event, as ministers caught out pay up on discovery, with a small punitive premium being the cost of retaining their plum appointments.
What happens to those whose “inadvertent” wrong claims are never uncovered? Nothing whatsoever, of course. And the fact Cabinet ministers, earning well over $300,000 per year, see fit to bill the tax-paying public for $1,000 here and $1,000 there is an indecency that few ordinary voters — even the highly politically literate — will have ease in accepting or condoning.
By contrast, ordinary wage and salary earners who make fast and loose with $1,000 of their employer’s money for personal travel purposes could confidently expect to be fired if discovered: and this is precisely the fate that must now befall Ms Ley if she refuses to depart the ministry of her own volition.
Her statement conveniently makes no mention of the fact that her partner owns a business within a short distance of the apartment the duo purchased during the Gold Coast visit in question; this fact — along with the reality Ms Ley is also refunding other travel and accommodation-related claims pertaining to Gold Coast travel with her partner on other occasions — tips the balance away from simple oversight and in the direction of a reasonable conclusion that repeated misuse of entitlements that are disturbingly similar in nature are not “inadvertent oversights” at all.
And in fact, just about the only aspect of this grubby episode this column is prepared to defend Ms Ley over is the thinly veiled and grotesque insinuation made by mainstream media outlets and the ALP that a purchase of an apartment from a donor to the Queensland LNP is somehow corrupt: if we start placing restrictions on whom members of Parliament are able to purchase goods and services from with their own money, we risk debasing the standard of politicians and politics itself in this country even further.
That small point aside, Ms Ley has given a noble account of herself couched in lofty rhetoric that nevertheless fails to either meet appropriate standards of ministerial accountability or to satisfactorily answer legitimate questions of propriety in these matters, and she must resign.
Nobody denies Sussan Ley is an impressive individual; in many respects she is one of the most intelligent occupants of a seat in any Australian House of Parliament today, but this is scarcely the point.
And even though Health is a notoriously difficult portfolio at the best of times — and especially for a Liberal Health minister, perennially faced with gratuitous thuggery by healthcare unions and hostile ALP state governments causing trouble for the sake of it, as Liberals in her role too often are forced to confront — it isn’t as if her performance in the portfolio has been Earth-shattering (although she has run rings around her predecessor, Peter Dutton, who as Health minister bordered on being hopeless).
In a portfolio crying out for reform — thorough, root-and-branch reform, not a piecemeal cut-and-tuck approach to chisel out a few miserly dollars in budget savings at enormous political cost — Ley has proven as unwilling as the rest of her recent predecessors to grasp the bull by the horns, as federal-state duplication, militant union politicking, ALP intransigence and a refusal to take on vested interests means Australia’s burgeoning, bloated public health sector continues to grow increasingly unsustainable.
It was on Ley’s watch that Labor, rightly or wrongly, was able to mount the ridiculous but reprehensible “Mediscare” that the Turnbull government planned to sell off the public healthcare system: something for which some modicum of responsibility must be accepted by Ms Ley.
And when it is remembered that increases to private health insurance premiums approved on Ley’s watch now mean working families on middle incomes are shelling out some $3,000 per year — after the health insurance rebate and over and above the Medicare levy — it is little wonder that private health fund membership, with high excesses and ballooning exclusions lists, is now falling: placing even more strain on a public health system that is at breaking point.
In other words, whatever little merit there may have been in Ms Ley’s thoroughly defective apology today is quickly erased by the flaws in her ministerial track record.
Australians, quite rightly, are fed up with the largesse their politicians dole out to themselves where matters of “entitlement” are concerned.
It is indisputable that the job of an MP (and especially of a minister) is dour, arduous, time-consuming, and a hefty strain on personal relationships.
It may seem unfair to call for Sussan Ley’s head where others, ostensibly guilty of greater sins, have escaped, and Ms Ley’s “errors of judgement” do not, when considered in context, exceed the outrage committed by former Speaker Bronwyn Bishop in 2015.
Yet the more of these “errors of judgement” the Australian public is instructed to tolerate by politicians pretending to be contrite, the less inclined it grows to do so, and in this sense, Ms Ley’s resignation or dismissal should also serve as a warning to others once it has been obtained.
Australian parliamentarians, despite the exacting nature of their roles, are reasonably remunerated; they earn base salaries starting at some $200,000 per annum, in addition to other allowances and entitlements, and despite the reform of the parliamentary superannuation scheme by the Howard government in 2001 nevertheless enjoy employer-funded superannuation that is more generous than most private sector organisations are able to offer to their own employees.
When it is remembered that every conceivable reasonable expense incurred in the course of politicians discharging their duties is paid by taxpayers, the demand for probity and transparency is not only justified, but to be expected.
It is not good enough for the Liberal Party — with a cocked finger pointed across the aisle at the ALP — to simply claim that “we’re not as bad as they are” and to attempt to sweep matters such as those involving Ms Ley under the carpet.
Whilst perhaps indelicate to say so, it is not in the Liberal Party’s interests, at a time the party languishes in reputable opinion polling and holding office by its fingernails, to accrue and retain a contingent of ministers with legitimate and insufficiently answered question marks hanging over their use — or misuse — of ministerial entitlements.
The Australian public deserves better: and this in itself warrants the call for Ms Ley to go.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott — a proven Howard government Health minister — would be a ready-made replacement, with the additional political carrot of extending an olive branch to the conservative wing of Turnbull’s party; alternatively, the vacancy could be used to promote a Christian Porter, a Josh Frydenberg, or an Angus Taylor — giving one of the party’s likely future leaders greater experience in a solid, heavy domestic portfolio that is integral to the success of any future government.
Last — but by no means least — if Ms Ley refuses to resign, then it becomes incumbent upon Malcolm Turnbull to exhibit the requisite degree of leadership, and dismiss her.
Yet that would require Turnbull the behave like a leader in the first place: and for a Prime Minister whose sole priority appears to simply be Prime Minister — aside from throwing potential future leadership rivals like Frydenberg and Treasurer Scott Morrison under a bus — that is a different matter entirely, and one we have no faith in his ability or inclination to answer.
Ordinary Australians are disgusted by the revelations surrounding Ms Ley’s travel arrangements, and I know many rank-and-file Liberals who are seething that yet another of Malcolm Turnbull’s star lieutenants and leadership supporters has created yet more embarrassment and damage to the party and to the government.
The ball is in Turnbull’s court. If Ley refuses to go quietly, she must be sacked.