THE UPROAR over dubious expense claims by Health minister Sussan Ley has turned farcical, with Malcolm Turnbull standing her aside “without pay” until, presumably, an inquiry with predetermined findings “clears” her. More allegations have been made. Critics have been likened to socialists and sexists. The real issue is that MP entitlements are a barely regulated money tree, raided at will. Ley must be sacked, and the tree hacked down.
What a difference a day makes: since I posted on this subject last night, the old strategy of standing firm and going on an all-out attack has been executed to the letter by a predictable circle of Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership supporters, as they closed ranks to protect one of their own in a desperate effort to shut down a scandal that threatens to be every bit as damaging to Turnbull as the absurd misuse of money on a helicopter charter by Bronwyn Bishop was to Tony Abbott.
There are a number of Coalition (or Coalition-aligned) voices that have chided me today for failing to similarly fall into line and instead calling for the dismissal of Health minister Sussan Ley in my article last night.
I say to readers — as I said to each of those people who were good enough to share their views — that as far as I am concerned, every minister (irrespective of party) caught out in a flagrant breach of the guidelines that apply to ministerial expenses (as Sussan Ley has already admitted to) and/or relying on semantic representations of highly questionable claims (as Ley also has, for example, with her justification for spending consecutive New Year’s Eves on the Gold Coast at taxpayers’ expense) to get their arse out of the sling ought to be fired without compunction.
For backbench MPs caught doing the same thing, the penalty should be a mandatory hearing before the relevant disciplinary committee of the party in question, with the penalty of disendorsement the sanction for consideration: the party that protects a rorter will be judged accordingly, as will the party that upholds standards by tossing such a character overboard.
There are those who suggest I (and anyone who agrees with my position on this issue) are somehow neolithic troglodytes who should be marginalised, ostracised, and kept quiet. Apparently, we don’t “get it.” Apparently, we are “not part of the team.”
They are entitled to that view.
But there seems to be a dearth of good sense when it comes to the misuse of parliamentary entitlements on all sides of politics: in recent years, we have seen a Liberal Speaker in Canberra who hired a helicopter to avoid a 45-minute drive. Here in Victoria, a Labor minister repeatedly chartered a chauffeured car for his dogs. Now, we have a Liberal minister who thinks more than 20 taxpayer-funded trips to the Gold Coast in three years, many of them also featuring taxpayer-funded spousal travel, are somehow acceptable because in each case there was a component of “official business” (however spurious) attached to it.
With those observations in mind, here are a few of the things the Sussan Ley scandal is not about.
It is not about whether Sussan Ley is fundamentally a good or decent person.
It is not about whether Sussan Ley is an intelligent lady, a very hard worker, or even a good minister.
It is not about “socialism,” which disgraced former Speaker Bronwyn Bishop tried to claim this afternoon in an idiotic outburst (that raises the point that with friends like Bronwyn, Sussan Ley hardly needs enemies).
It is not about “sexism,” either, despite some, Bishop included, hitting the airwaves to suggest it is: money is, to put it most deliciously, gender-neutral when it comes to the misuse of the stuff.
And it isn’t about whether Sussan Ley is “a crook.” Clearly, she is not.
Conversely, here are a few of the things this scandal is very much about.
It is about the fact that by Ley’s own admission, several of her expense claims breached ministerial guidelines.
It is about the fact that as those guidelines are universally acknowledged (even if from behind some people’s hands) as being as watertight as a sieve, ministerial entitlements are open to virtually any degree of misappropriation imaginable — provided, of course, there is the fig leaf of “official business” attached somewhere that is either not elaborated (on the convenient grounds of “confidentiality”) or dragged out in an embarrassing media circus (like Ms Ley subjected Brisbane businesswoman and Liberal Party donor Sarina Russo to earlier today).
It is about the fact that simple common sense outweighs the “guidelines” far too easily. Reasonable, fair-minded people can tell the difference between legitimate expenses and taking the piss.
And it is about the fact that if the more questionable of the outstanding claims by Ms Ley do, indeed, comply with the guidelines, then the guidelines must be junked — and replaced by a more independent system of administration.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull — confronted with the surprisingly candid admission by Ms Ley that some of her claims did not meet his own ministerial code of conduct — has yet again exhibited a complete lack of leadership (to say nothing of any backbone) by failing to dismiss the minister from his Cabinet.
This comes as no surprise; Turnbull has conceded a big bag of scalps to the government’s opponents since jumping Tony Abbott in a leadership coup 16 months ago, and will no doubt concede more. The litany of botched reshuffles that have occurred on Malcolm’s watch, and the proliferation of Turnbull-supporting
dead extinct wood that remains in the ministry, are testament to this.
The formulation that Ley would “stand aside without pay” is a just-too-clever construct that only an idiot could fail to see through. The “rigorous” investigation that will occur, conducted by Turnbull’s private office, will clear Ley — he can’t afford the risk of Ley going feral in a leadership ballot like Bronwyn Bishop did to Abbott — after which Ley will resume her duties, be back-paid whatever monies she temporarily forewent, and life will carry on.
As I said yesterday, Ley’s mea culpa seemed more designed to salvage her political career than based in any genuine sense of remorse.
Nobody will have properly accepted responsibility — or made any recompense — whatsoever. In repaying a few of the most abjectly inappropriate amounts, Ley will merely have coughed up for what she should have paid from her own pocket in the first place, rather than charging it to the taxpayer.
The problem with all this is that voters are not idiots; not only can the man on the street see through such a sham, but people across the country are absolutely fed up with what they (rightly) see as the political class making fast and loose — and living a life on clover — literally at their expense.
I talk a lot about standards in politics (or the lack of them these days), and I mean it: and to be political for a moment, it disturbs me greatly that for all the hype that “we’re not Labor” and predictable claims that we don’t do in the Liberal Party as the ALP does, blind tribal loyalty merely cloaks the fact that in round terms, our lot is not much better than their lot: if at all.
We execute leaders in coups.* We’ve always done it in state-based Liberal parties; now we do it to Prime Ministers. Our MPs get caught up in the same kind of expenses rorts as Labor’s do. Because our (limp-wristed and lily-livered) political “strategists” abhor risk and are terrified of offending anyone, our governments end up singing mere variations of the same claptrap Labor’s do. And as I have said before, when the political divide in Australia boils down simply to an argument over whether the “competent” side or the “compassionate” side should prevail (with a depressingly diminishing store of evidence to back the bona fides of either side in this regard), mainstream politics in this country is in a pretty dismal place.
Meanwhile, minor parties are surging. You really have to wonder what it will take for the penny to drop.
The bottom line is that ministerial and parliamentary entitlements are little more than a barely regulated money tree; it is able to be raided almost at will, provided the footprints of the perpetrator are covered in bullshit.
The only way to stop the practice is to take an axe to it, and to chop down the tree once and for all.
The entitlements, allowances and other benefits that apply to members of Parliament should be regulated, administered and overseen by an independent commission: the guidelines that govern them should be exponentially tightened, the provisions for spousal travel all but abolished, and the penalties for breaches increased — up to and including disqualification from Parliament in extreme cases, which should be prosecuted directly rather than first dealt with by a committee comprised of (surprise, surprise) members of Parliament.
Politicians are not business executives. Minor officials (such as backbenchers and junior ministers) are not patronage-dispensing tycoons to be feted with a generous array of travel benefits that can easily be personalised to confer discretionary benefit. Senior ministers and leaders are not rock stars. They are all servants of the people, and it is high time they started to behave like it.
Tomorrow, Malcolm Turnbull must forget about the numbers in hypothetical leadership contests, forget about ridiculous factional loyalties, forget about the fact Sussan Ley is (by every objective assessment) a decent, smart, highly likeable, hard-working woman, and sack her for repeatedly breaching ministerial guidelines.
If he doesn’t, this episode will further degrade his already tarnished government’s standing in the eyes of a majority of voters; and if he doesn’t, he will rightly be perceived to have driven one more nail into the coffin of his leadership of the Liberal Party — an inadvisable misadventure in any event whose time, with inevitable certainty, is fast running out.
Either way, ordinary voters are disgusted. Turnbull will ignore this fact at his peril.
*No, I don’t like leadership coups in government — and yes, I have called for the replacement of Malcolm Turnbull as Liberal Party leader — but the point is that the genie (assassinating sitting Prime Ministers) should never have been let out of the bottle in the first place.