BREAKING: Mal Brough To Quit Federal Parliament

FORMER Special Minister of State Mal Brough has announced he will not contest the coming federal election, and is set to quit the Sunshine Coast seat of Fisher; the announcement comes as a Federal Police investigation into any role Brough played in bringing down his predecessor — disgraced ex-Speaker Peter Slipper — continues. Brough’s fall from grace is a tragedy, but his departure is a likely further pointer to an election sooner rather than later.

A quick post from me this afternoon, on the hop as I am; some readers may have already seen the news, but embattled former Special Minister of State (and hand-picked Turnbull appointee) Mal Brough has called time this afternoon on his political career, just three years after securing Liberal Party endorsement to return to Canberra via the seat previously held by disgraced former Speaker and general all-round grub Peter Slipper.

This is a subject we have followed quite closely, in part on account of an old personal connection I had with Brough 20 years ago; despite his position on the moderate wing of the Liberal Party, I thought at that time he was a credible future candidate for the Prime Ministership — so impressive is he in person — and the end his career has now reached, especially under a cloud of suspicion of unlawful conduct, gives me no satisfaction at all. Quite the contrary.

His return to the ministry late last year, as a key lieutenant in Malcolm Turnbull’s successful leadership coup against Tony Abbott, quickly proved an early pointer to the fact Turnbull’s famed lack of judgement remains all too real and present; rapidly outed as the subject of continuing Federal Police investigations into the ghastly business surrounding Slipper — inquiries that were announced to the country in the form of a raid on Brough’s home — his Cabinet position immediately became untenable.

Typically, Turnbull dithered, eventually parting with Brough at the same time another grub in the government’s ranks, Jamie Briggs, was forced out over allegations of inappropriate conduct; even though those ministerial departures signalled the first and second of five involuntary changes to the ministry, their timing was poignant.

And so too, it is, on this occasion.

I do feel quite some sympathy for Mal and his wife, Sue, but in noting that I also point out that if the allegations against him are substantiated, then prosecution must follow: there is only one law in this country, and it must apply to everyone equally and without fear or favour. Sometimes, people we know and like will do the wrong thing, and must be punished, but such is the price of being only human: people make mistakes.

It is to Brough’s enduring credit that he elected to step aside from his Cabinet post voluntarily, and also to subsequently relinquish it, when others before him (and particularly of the Gillard government variety) stubbornly chose instead to dig in when confronted with suggestions of misbehaviour, and in this sense Brough should at least receive acknowledgement that he spared the country the trauma and farce of delaying the inevitable.

Even so, his significant potential — despite his tenure as a senior minister in the Howard government — will remain unfulfilled.

Brough’s resignation will now spark a feeding frenzy over the usually safe Liberal Sunshine Coast electorate of Fisher; already there are suggestions that former Newman government minister Jarrod Bleijie will join the exodus of LNP state politicians seeking federal seats rather than an additional term in opposition in Queensland, and whilst I am yet to form a firm position on this, my general view is that Bleijie — along with Messrs McVeigh and Seeney — ought to remain exactly where they are, or quit politics altogether.

And the timing of this latest announcement involving Brough may again be significant in terms of its relationship to other events.

At this time, there is no suggestion his resignation relates to developments in the investigations of allegations against him; after all, the resignation of his seat takes effect from the next election: and even if it’s early, that event is probably four months away.

But with the eleventh-hour departures from the ministry of Brough and Briggs last year, Turnbull’s ready penchant for a little deck-clearing when nobody seems likely to notice appears alive and well too: and I would say that on balance, Brough’s timing now is likely directly related to buying as much clear air as possible between now and the election date, which I understand is already known to members of the government’s inner circle.

As ever, we will watch this to see if anything further comes of it: and in the meantime, I aim to be back with readers — and to catch up on the backlog of the week’s events — either tonight or tomorrow.

 

Brough, Grech, Slipper, Ashby: Malcolm’s In The Middle

THE PRESSURE on Malcolm Turnbull to fire Special Minister of State Mal Brough will mount over the silly season, even if Brough is cleared of allegations made against him; Brough’s inconclusive account of events that finished former Speaker Peter Slipper is set to haunt the government, evoking a name — Godwin Grech — Turnbull would rather forget. Instead, Malcolm is in the middle of a sordid business that should have concluded months ago.

If there was a single, discernible point at which Liberal Party conservatives switched off forever in terms of tolerating Malcolm Turnbull as leader, it came in mid-2009, as an email Turnbull was supplied by a Commonwealth public servant that appeared to show a corruption trail leading to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd — upon which Turnbull had relied heavily in his pursuit of the former government — was revealed to be an utter forgery; apparently Turnbull and/or his staff had declined to verify the contents of the leaked email. Had they done so, Turnbull’s voluble crusade against Rudd would never have happened, but he would appear less reckless and more astute in the eyes of colleagues and party members who were dubious about supporting him.

The author of that email, of course, was Godwin Grech; the affair it triggered — Utegate — is a short, sharp byword for almost everything Turnbull’s critics base their aversion to supporting him on. And now, Grech’s name has suddenly become all too relevant once more.

But first, a little history; in late 1995, I befriended a first-time Liberal candidate in the newly created seat of Longman, which then ran in a thin north-south band inland from Brisbane; that candidate was Mal Brough, and I thought, quite seriously, that the fresh-faced, urbane Brough could well end up leading the party. I was happy to do what I could to help him (which, admittedly, wasn’t much) and although I didn’t work for him after the 1996 election — I was too young, not that anyone could have told me that at the time — I watched his career with great interest and considerable goodwill toward both Mal and his wife Sue, whom I had also met during the 1996 campaign.

It didn’t bother me that Mal was a Liberal moderate: ferociously unaligned as a conservative where the party’s personality-based factions are concerned, I have often supported moderates over the years, and was happy to do so in Brough’s case.

But Mal was a surprise victim of the 2007 election defeat; and when the Liberals and Nationals merged in Queensland — something I opposed vehemently — it seemed Brough’s political career was at its end, declining as he initially did to take any part in the merged entity. Loudmouths like Clive Palmer can goad Brough all they like about his thwarted ambition to be state president of the LNP, but the simple fact is that passions (and tempers) were raw, inflamed, and often boiled over at that time, and Brough wasn’t the only prominent Liberal to depart the LNP.

In many respects, I’m sure he wonders now why he bothered returning to the party at all, let alone as a federal MP, and the two words that spring inevitably forth are the name of the turncoat who sold the LNP down the river to become Speaker of the House of Representatives under Julia Gillard: Peter Slipper.

Brough must rue the day he ever heard Slipper’s name, and he isn’t Robinson Crusoe there.

Yet the scandal involving former Slipper staffer James Ashby — and the question of whether Brough asked Ashby to procure Slipper’s diaries (as part of the political witch hunt against the LNP defector) — seems to know no bounds; and once again, in Question Time this week, it reared its ugly head: this time through a determined ALP assault on Brough’s credibility, highlighting discrepancies between an interview he gave 60 Minutes in 2014 (and seemingly admitted asking Ashby for precisely that) and now, when he emphatically denies ever asking for such a thing at all.

Initially, I was pleased when Brough announced he would stand against Slipper, first for his LNP preselection for the Sunshine Coast seat of Fisher, and ultimately as an endorsed candidate at the 2013 election, and as I had in 1995, I contacted Brough to convey that I was happy to do what I could to help him (which, admittedly, still wasn’t much with me long-since removed to Melbourne, although I did offer to remotely provide his campaign with help on the broad communications/media front for nothing, which he declined).

But it’s one of those face-palming realities that just as a ready-made senior Cabinet minister with leadership capabilities stood to return to Parliament, potentially bolstering an Abbott ministry that looked like being light-on for standouts, the fracas surrounding Slipper and Ashby, who had accused him of sexual harassment, exploded, casting serious questions over Brough’s judgement and raising the question (hitherto unresolved) of whether he had acted illegally in joining (and to some extent, leading) the charge against the disgraced former Speaker.

On one level, Brough deserves enduring credit for going after Peter Slipper, an insidious individual with whom I had the misfortune 20-odd years ago to have had some dealings in Queensland; however the legal cloud over Brough’s head resolves itself, and irrespective of Slipper having a charge of defrauding the commonwealth overturned on appeal, one thing that has irrefutably emerged from the Slipper fiasco is that he is a very, very unsavoury individual: his apparent predilection for sordid details of the sex lives of his staff, combined with some truly abhorrent reflections on the sexual physiology of women, are enough to convince any reasonably minded individual that Slipper is a monster even if he did ultimately manage to give his legal problems the slip.

Nobody could blame Brough (or anyone else in a position to pursue Slipper) for doing whatever they could to drive him out of Parliament.

Yet sometimes, highly likeable and otherwise good, decent people make mistakes that overstep the mark where the law is concerned; the question now is whether — in allegedly seeking the diaries and other documents of Slipper’s through Ashby prior to his re-entry to Parliament — Brough did precisely that.

The Australian Federal Police clearly believe the question remains open, having raided Brough’s house recently in search of evidence.

The storm that erupted during the week over apparent discrepancies between what Brough apparently said in that 60 Minutes interview — seemingly confirming that he had asked Ashby to get Slipper’s diary — and what he says now which, emphatically, is that he did not, is one that should easily have been foreseen by Turnbull on his return to the Liberal leadership and averted by leaving Brough on the backbench until it was resolved.

Procuring or attempting to procure the documents of a Commonwealth official (in other words, Slipper) is a criminal offence; and aside from its initial, class-hatred based attack on Turnbull’s personal fortune, it is telling that the Brough issue is one of the earliest crusades Labor has embarked upon since Turnbull resumed the Liberal leadership.

To say investigations into everything that happened concerning Peter Slipper during the last term of Parliament have dragged on far too long is an understatement; yes, such inquiries must run their course, and must be seen to have done so. But in the end, these are matters that occurred some years ago, and it is in nobody’s interests for them to go on ad infinitum.

Depending on preference, readers may access some additional coverage from the Fairfax press here, and from the Murdoch stable here and here.

Brough may well have survived the ALP onslaught this week, but anyone — including Brough, and especially Turnbull — who thinks the matter won’t resurface the instant Parliament reconvenes next year is delusional.

Labor is likely to continue to hammer Brough over the silly season at every opportunity in any case, just to ensure the whiff of impropriety it seeks to harvest from the ongoing investigation continues to swirl around voters at the very time they want to switch off politics for the year.

And for as long as the issue — and the cloud hanging over Brough’s integrity — remains unresolved, the government will remain plagued by questions over Turnbull’s judgement in having Brough in the ministry at all.

One will say something nice for once about the iron fist Peta Credlin exercised over the Abbott government: whether by Abbott’s design or Credlin’s insistence, Brough was excluded from the Coalition’s first ministry; further, the moment the suggestion of impropriety was levelled against former Assistant Treasurer Arthur Sinodinis, he was stood aside pending exoneration.

The only proper course of action for Brough to follow is to resign: and if he won’t go voluntarily, Turnbull is going to have to sack him.

A chronic history of very poor political judgement is one of the reasons Turnbull was dumped in favour of Abbott in the first place; already, and involving issues that go beyond the fracas over Brough that continues to play out, those questions around Turnbull’s judgement were already beginning to resurface just ten weeks into his rebirth as Liberal leader and Prime Minister.

That tin ear — which led him to embrace the fictitious material provided by Grech back in 2009 — has now apparently rendered Turnbull insensible to the political damage retaining Brough as Special Minister of State is probably already doing to the government’s electoral standing.

More broadly, however, it isn’t a good look for the Liberal Party in opposition to (correctly) go after any number of dubious individuals among the ranks of its opponents — Craig Thomson, Peter Slipper, Julia Gillard et al — only to retain such an individual on its frontbench when in office itself.

It doesn’t matter that Turnbull may feel indebted to Brough for assisting with shoring up the numbers for the latter to return to the leadership: the rendering of political assistance does not, should not and must not provide a shield against the proper process of a criminal investigation, nor preclude one of its subjects from behaving appropriately: and the only appropriate course of action for Brough to pursue, until and/or unless he is found by Police to have no case to answer, is to quit.

If Brough is innocent of any wrongdoing (and I sincerely hope he is) then I can understand how frustrating (or even unfair) it must be to find himself under suspicion, but in the interests of propriety, sound governance, and for the good of the Liberal Party itself, he must relinquish his post.

If Turnbull has to sack a second supporter to make it so, then so it must be. At least Brough is unlikely to run off to the National Party seeking to abuse Coalition process to get his job back, which is more than you can say about the pathetic, failed ex-minister who did just that this week, but that’s another story.

The ball is in Turnbull’s court, it seems. If he has learned anything at all since Grech made a fool of him six and a half years ago and turned the Liberal leadership into a national joke, now is the time to prove it.

 

“Choppergate:” Bishop Must Resign After Expenses Outrage

THERE IS NO POINT sugar-coating what on any objective criteria is an insult to decency and a flagrant abuse of the privileges of public office: news the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Bronwyn Bishop, spent $5,227 of taxpayer money on a 60km helicopter trip instead of a car for a fraction of the price is indefensible. For Bishop — a repeat big spender on premium travel — the matter is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. She must resign.

Forget the “definitions” that sometimes legitimise largesse when it comes to the “entitlements” of our elected representatives: this was Liberal Party business, and nothing else.

The news yesterday that Speaker Bronwyn Bishop had been exposed for chartering a helicopter flight last year to fly from the Melbourne CBD to Geelong — at a cost of some $5,227 for the return trip — no doubt seems reasonable to some.

But with a perfectly good freeway a couple of miles away and the fine town of Geelong just an hour by road, there is no reason Bishop couldn’t have booked a chauffeured private hire car (or a ComCar) for a few hundred dollars instead.

And not least, when taxpayers are footing the bill.

I am prepared to defend reasonable expenditure by MPs on all sides of politics, and over the lifespan of this column have either done so actively or (more usually) by simply declining to oxygenate sensationalist coverage of supposed rorts by ignoring them altogether.

Elected representatives have the reasonable expectation that expenses incurred in the course of carrying out their duties will be covered, and those expenses may, by the nature of their roles, be inflated when compared to those incurred by a private individual — the practice, for example, of flying in business class, which avoids the prospect of mid-air confrontations between politicians and angry voters, and reduces the requirement for expensive, extensive security details whose costs significantly outstrip the price of the airline ticket.

Often, there is a fine line between what is reasonable and what is ridiculous — particularly where public opinion is concerned — and the aggregate demands on MPs of official business and party business (especially when the MP in question is a minister, party leader or Speaker) often legitimise consolidated travel arrangements at public expense whose bona fides, whilst clear, are not always immediately visible to the typical voter.

None of these defences exist in the case of “Choppergate,” and Ms Bishop must consequently consider her position.

As a veteran of almost 30 years in federal politics, Bishop would know better than most of her Canberra colleagues what is acceptable, and what is not.

Moreover, when it comes to drawing the distinction between what is made legitimate and lawful by virtue of parliamentary guidelines on the one hand, and what could not and cannot be justified in the court of public opinion even if the minutiae of expense claims were disclosed in full on the other, Ms Bishop’s experience uniquely places her to be able to draw such a distinction.

The helicopter trip in question — whilst ridiculous — was, by the universal agreement of players on all sides in Canberra, a purely political conveyance, undertaken to attend a Liberal Party function at the start of last year’s state election campaign, and to date nobody — including Ms Bishop — has provided evidence of coincident business or other ameliorating factors to justify it.

In this case, repayment of the monies simply doesn’t cut it: and a terse, two-sentence statement that accompanied news she would do so — essentially reiterating the trip was, in her view, covered by parliamentary guidelines, but that she would make the payment from her own pocket “to avoid ambiguity” — gives every indication the reimbursement is to be made grudgingly, and under heavy duress indeed.

Even so, this might have been the end of the matter, were it not for the fact Bishop appears to be something of a recidivist when it comes to playing fast and loose with taxpayer monies on “official” travel.

The Fairfax press is carrying a story this morning that details some $309,000 spent by Ms Bishop on overseas travel in her first year as speaker, outstripping predecessors Anna Burke, Harry Jenkins and even the profligate Peter Slipper: the details make for infuriating reading.

It outlines some $90,000 spent by Ms Bishop on a two-week jaunt to Europe (to unsuccessfully lobby for a job with the Inter-Parliamentary Union) that featured expenditure items for herself and two staffers including $42,400 in airfares and $25,400 on accommodation and food. The unjustifiable largesse is astonishing.

And even the Murdoch press is weighing in against Bishop, with the Courier Mail opining the public has every right to be angry with the Speaker, whilst The Australian gave details that Bishop chose the most expensive helicopter transport option on offer — and even suggesting the matter smacked of preferment for the company chartered to provide the flight.

The “pub test” — as Treasurer Joe Hockey yesterday put it — essentially comes down to a distinction between what is legal on the one hand, and what can reasonably be considered appropriate on the other, and whilst nobody suggests Bishop has broken any laws, even if parliamentary guidelines cover her for the outrageous expense she incurred by billing taxpayers for a flight between Melbourne and Geelong, there is no basis in common sense or proper regard for public funds to justify it.

Unlike those in the ALP who bleat of favouritism, I do think Ms Bishop has made a reasonable fist of her role as Speaker.

Like more prominent figures who — like me — should have known better, I too jumped on the momentary madness of the “Bronwyn for PM” bandwagon in early 1994, which saw so many otherwise astute Liberals take leave of their senses as the doomed leadership of John Hewson began to implode.

And whilst perhaps no ministerial standout, Bishop has made a solid contribution over her three decades in public office, and does in fact have a record she can be proud of.

That includes advancement of the status and prospects for women in politics — even if the pinko feminazis at Emily’s List dismiss her (along with every other woman in the Coalition) as somehow less than female because she is not a socialist.

But then again, the fact Bishop has endured and succeeded without quotas and an Emily’s List-style cheer squad merely underlines what she has been able to accomplish.

For all that, however, this latest scandal (and her brusque justification of it) deserves to signal the end of her career.

Playing fast and loose with taxpayer monies is a pastime that has gone on for too long in political life, and if for no better reason than to set an example, Ms Bishop should be removed if she refuses to quit.

I accept that others have been “at it” and that other MPs may be guilty of worse than what Ms Bishop has been revealed to have done, but after the first few public humiliations — and terminated sinecures — have played out, the signal to the rest of the parliamentary pack might and should have been heeded.

And as a final but nonetheless critical point, as Speaker of the House of Representatives, Ms Bishop is the highest ranking parliamentary official in Canberra: among other things, her office is charged with upholding the standards of Parliament as an institution itself. It is for this reason I agitated so loudly for the removal of the grub Peter Slipper from the post when he held it.

It is imperative, therefore, and especially in light of these revelations, that the office and its bearer not only maintain rigorous standards of probity, but to be seen to be doing so.

To make good on her misuse of public monies, therefore, Ms Bishop should resign.

 

Slippery Pete: Too Clever By Half, In The End

A SUPPURATING SORE on the integrity of politics in Australia was disinfected today, with the conviction of Coalition traitor and former Speaker Peter Slipper on charges of dishonestly abusing travel entitlements; the development is a welcome one, and it is to be hoped that it now closes the door on the public life of a slippery customer who managed to stay one step ahead of trouble for so long, but ultimately not for long enough.

Just over 18 months ago, I commented on a storyline that has now come full circle: namely, the breaking news that the contemptible Slipper was to be charged with misusing Cabcharge vouchers to cover the cost of touring around various wineries in the Canberra region. Today, those charges were resolved.

The conviction of Slipper on all of them comes after an extraordinary battle on his own part to have the charges abandoned, dismissed, or otherwise thrown out of court, even going so far as to declare himself — in effect — to be a mental case. Whether Slipper actually suffers from mental illness is a moot point insofar as his attempt to use it to escape prosecution merely continues a long history of questionable travel expense claims, and real or not, it should never have been allowed to provide him with an escape hatch.

I am not going to say very much: after all, before Slipper became “yesterday’s man,” we spent more time than he merited discussing his travails and misadventures in this column, and anyone interested in becoming reacquainted with him can do so through the “Peter Slipper” option in the list of tags at the right-hand side of the screen.

There is also a news report on these developments that anyone interested can access here.

There have been funny stories around about Peter Slipper for decades; some true, some not true, but most of which never became public.

Even when Slipper remained in the Coalition tent — with the facade that he was motivated by anything other than his own welfare and self-interest intact — there were many who, with good reason and for a range of reasons, gave him as wide a berth as possible. Following my initial contacts with him 20 years ago, I was one of them.

For at least that long (and in all probability, for longer), Slipper has had an uncanny knack of always being able to stay a step ahead of trouble; whatever was thrown at him — allegations of travel rorts, accusations of sexual misconduct, whatever — he was always able to survive.

$1,000 worth of government-provided Cabcharge vouchers, used on three separate occasions to pay for Slipper and his entourage to go on a virtual pub crawl through the ACT’s wineries, would be a laughably innocuous way for Slippery Pete to have finally brought about his downfall were it not for the fact there was finally evidence with which to convict him over some of his misadventures.

Several attempts to have the charges thrown out of court didn’t cut it; neither did his defence, which boiled down to an assertion that “everyone else repays the money if they’re caught, and so should I.”

The fact is that guidelines that govern the travel entitlements available to MPs are notoriously loose, open to misinterpretation, and easily rorted; it is inevitable that misunderstandings and incorrect claims will occur, and not least when staffers process claims as third parties to an activity they may not have been party to personally.

But “party,” in this case, Slipper did, and Chief Magistrate Lorraine Walker found (among other things) that Slipper had knowingly and deliberately used the vouchers in such a way as to conceal the fact he was not on parliamentary business, and had knowingly caused a risk of loss to the Commonwealth.

I’m not going to get into any kind of slanging match over Slipper; I know he has friends and I am told he’s a likeable enough rogue if you get to know him. Fortunately — with my suspicions heightened and my eyebrows raised the day I met him — I never got to know him well enough to formulate my own opinion on it, and never had any desire to do so.

But the Speakership aside — a bauble he was only ever given to shore up the numbers for the Gillard government — Slipper rose to the dizzying heights of a parliamentary secretary, and after a political career that spanned the better part of 30 years, there is little Australia will remember him for other than his innovative approach to claiming entitlements.

In the final analysis, Slipper was adroit at staying one step ahead of trouble for a long, long time. In the end, one step wasn’t enough.

Slipper will be sentenced on 22 September. If we comment on it all, I doubt there will be subsequent cause to mention him again.

 

Weddings, Expenses, Anything: Bury The Bipartisan Hatchet

ONE OF the most reviled (and publicly misunderstood) aspects of political life is the thorny issue of government travel entitlements; perhaps at a time when incendiary allegations, smears and “revelations” are being thrown about like confetti, perspective and reason might better serve all involved.

I’ve deliberately avoided this subject to date — not because it’s Liberal Party identities in the firing line this time around, but because controversies over legitimately allowable and claimed expenses for MPs generally spawn unwinnable arguments — and I intend to keep my remarks as circumspect as possible.

Indeed, the reason I’ve decided to comment at all is because late yesterday the counterpunches were being thrown too, with a raft of accusations hitting Labor MPs over expenses claimed to attend Bob Hawke’s 80th birthday celebrations in 2009.

I certainly don’t advocate (and nor would I defend) an open-ended, limitless entitlement for politicians on expenses for travel, accommodation, hospitality and the like.

But I am — within reason — going to come down on the side of the politicians on this: be they Liberal, Labor, or otherwise.

Anyone who has read a newspaper or seen a TV news report in recent days will know an ugly fracas has erupted over accusations Coalition figures — from the Prime Minister down — have in recent years made claims for a swathe of “borderline” expense reimbursements, notably in relation to their attendances at a couple of high-profile weddings.

It is obvious that senior minister George Brandis SC has been singled out as a target, perhaps as a consequence of his prosecution of the Coalition attack against a number of Gillard government identities, some of whom have cases to answer before the Courts.

It is equally clear that deputy National Party leader Barnaby Joyce has been targeted; Joyce is the most promising recruit the Nationals have found in decades — even allowing for the eccentricities of his early days as a Senator — and his capacity to put a modern and mainstream voice to traditional National Party values is not lost on his Labor opponents.

And it goes without saying that Prime Minister Tony Abbott is the number one target: having almost singlehandedly destroyed the ALP in government and two Prime Ministers in the process, Abbott is (and will remain indefinitely) the target of as much trouble the Labor machine can cause him, and Labor’s capacity to cause “trouble” is limitless.

To be clear — and in the interests of balance — the ALP is subjected to similar treatment on its expenses claims when it finds itself in office, so let he who is without sin…

The first point I make is that there is absolutely no suggestion, whatsoever, that any of the claims that have found their way into public view in the past week are in any way unlawful, inappropriate, or have failed to comply with the guidelines that govern such claims.

It is true that all three of the gentlemen to whom I refer have reimbursed the taxpayer for some of the claims to remove any shadow of doubt in relation to their integrity and that of the system generally.

But this — far from undermining their standing — ought strengthen it.

A typical red herring has been thrown into the debate by disgraced former Speaker Peter Slipper, who is facing prosecution over the alleged misuse of Cabcharge vouchers to visit wineries within the wider Canberra region during the term of the last Parliament.

Whilst not wishing to comment on matters before the Court, it is generally understood that Slipper’s winery visits were not of a parliamentary nature and — in any case — he has a long history of incorrect expense claims that he has been able to remedy on numerous occasions by simply writing a cheque to repay them.

Slipper’s “outrage” over not being able to do so now should be considered in that context.

It does however bring me to the second point: MPs undertake so much official travel, sometimes combining official business with recreational activities, that inadvertent incorrect claims are inevitable, which is why instances of claimed monies being paid back make the headlines at all from time to time.

The likes of Communications minister Malcolm Turnbull, and Abbott himself, got it dead right yesterday when they said that if there was ever any doubt about the legitimacy of the expenses claim, pay it yourself: these are not the words of people seeking to rip the taxpayer off, but seeking to ensure they don’t claim any more than they are entitled to.

And the third point — to adopt the absurd and completely opposite end of the argument — is that if MPs had to fund all travel and accommodation to attend official engagements out of their own pockets (thereby eliminating the problem) nobody would ever see them.

How many readers fork out from their own funds to go to an interstate or overseas business event that their boss has deemed mandatory? How many have deliberately chosen not to file their monthly expenses claim with the company accountant from a sense of corporate altruism?

I’d wager none have, and as it is in private enterprise, so it is in politics.

The truth is that politics is a dour, grinding, 18 hours a day, seven day a week proposition — something many who sit outside the sphere carping and whining don’t know and/or don’t care about.

Anyone who has ever seen a parliamentarian’s diary knows that even the weekends, most weeks, are filled with engagements, and in the case of federal MPs that often involves travel between multiple states.

And to my mind, even the nature of some of the events claimed for that have attracted criticism are not as cut and dried as they have been presented.

For one thing, who is to say that — for example — there was someone on the guest list at Sophie Mirabella’s wedding, with whom the Coalition MPs attending needed a quiet, off the record meeting with, that was critical to their parliamentary work but could in no way be made public for reasons of secrecy, commercial confidence, or similar considerations?

For another, a lot of the stone throwing is being undertaken by individuals whose appreciation of the finer nuances of how this country operates is selective, to say the least.

A well-known left-wing Twitter identity (who I am not going down the tangent of naming here) published what almost looked to be the full list of Tony Abbott’s claims for the last Parliament last night, replete with confected howls of indignant (and profane) fury.

It included things like the weddings we’ve all heard about, and events like last year’s AFL Grand Final, for which Abbott travelled to Melbourne with his wife and family.

Anyone with a brain knows that to do business in Melbourne, it often involves football — this city runs on it, and irrespective of the approval or otherwise of some, the Tony Abbotts of this world have little choice but to attend such things to have any real currency or impact south of the Murray.

And anyone who has ever had to sit through boring, excruciating, mindless corporate hospitality functions — often with spouse and/or children dutifully enduring the fun too — will know that again, sometimes to achieve real outcomes in business or any other enterprise, it’s the sort of impost that simply has to be tolerated.

I could go on, but as I said at the outset, a subject like this will always find someone, diametrically opposed in their opinion, who will insist it’s all arse-about. You can’t win.

So, to return to the original point, here are a few simple thoughts on how to move on from the grenade-throwing field trip the latest round of travel expense “revelations” have descended into:

  • A 30-day amnesty for the repayment of all marginal and/or incorrectly claimed travel entitlements, with matters currently on foot before the Courts of course excepted;
  • The clarification — and, where appropriate, tightening — of guidelines applying to such claims to be undertaken to mitigate against future erroneous claims;
  • An audit system of checks on claims (perhaps biannually) to identify inadvertent claims and enable repayment by the MP in question within a set timeframe; and
  • Consideration be given to the establishment of a small ongoing tribunal to continually review historic claims and realise outstanding monies as a further check on the system.

Nether side of the political spectrum should be playing petty politics over this: wilful breaches should of course be punished, but where the grenades are filled with the grist of legitimate expense transactions, the public has better things to seek information on from their elected representatives.

Certainly, Messrs Brandis, Joyce and Abbott have been warned: like it or not, they’re the first priority targets of the Labor opposition, and once the brouhaha over expenses dies off, there will be something else again thrown at them as the ALP seeks prized scalps. They will be on their guard, methinks.

But beyond that, this entire storm should go back into the teacup in which it belongs; cut MPs off from travelling altogether by all means, but don’t complain when you only ever see them on TV or handing out cards on election day if it ever comes to pass.

All sides of politics should take a deep breath and back off, agree once and for all on how to deal with these matters and stick to it, and then get on with something a little bit more constructive.

BREAKING: Peter Slipper To Recontest Fisher As Independent

IN A CASE of not knowing when to quit, National-cum-Liberal-cum-LNP-cum-Independent, conservative traitor and disgraced Speaker Peter Slipper has announced he’ll recontest his Sunshine Coast electorate of Fisher as an Independent; it is to be hoped the Liberals’ Mal Brough wins in a canter.

If ever there was a more pointless or less inspiring candidacy for public office, this is it.

For reasons best known to himself, Slipper has announced today that he will stand as an Independent at the imminent election in the seat of Fisher.

It comes in the wake of a poll conducted in the electorate, which showed Slipper would attract just 0.5% of the vote, were he to stand.

And it comes as his wife has apparently seen fit to issue a statement in support of Slipper, insisting their marriage is “real” and that she loves him.

Be that as it may or otherwise, the issue here is whether Slipper retains the support of local burghers — now stripped of his Liberal Party endorsement — and whether, after more than 25 years in public life, he has anything left to contribute, be it locally or nationally.

Having spent 23 of the past 26 years as a member of the House of Representatives, it is perhaps noteworthy that he has never held office as a minister of the Crown.

Indeed, even his tenure as Speaker is noisome, commenced as it was in a deal to shore up Labor’s parliamentary numbers under Julia Gillard, and terminated in the wake of a scandal in which Slippery Pete had likened female genitalia to shellfish in obscene terms.

This column notes that a candidate of outstanding calibre from the Howard government years — former cabinet minister Mal Brough — is attempting to resume his parliamentary career at this election in the seat of Fisher, and we hope Brough is elected in a landslide.

That said, there had been speculation in the mainstream press in recent days that Slipper would opt to contest a losing campaign as an Independent in order to qualify for a share of public election funding — supposedly to help pay his legal bills.

Whether this is the case or not, I note that to qualify, Slipper must poll 4% of valid first preference votes: not only do I think he will fail to do so, but I also hope he fails to do so.

We have discussed the former Speaker in this column too many times to recount, and for once I’m not going to republish any links to the commentary we have made on his antics, although readers will be able to access these articles easily through the archives section.

I simply relate the news that Slipper is to stand, and it is to be hoped the announcement heralds the end of a career that has been an abject waste of a conservative seat in the House of Representatives, and which could hardly be described as “glittering.”

 

Amateurish Farce: Peter Slipper Joins — And Leaves — Palmer Party

CLIVE PALMER’S United Australia Party was today shown up as the amateurish, unprofessional outfit it is, with news that parliamentary grub Peter Slipper had applied to join, was accepted, and then kicked out — in five hours. The episode destroys any credibility the UAP might pretend to claim.

As days in politics go, this one has been a farce, at least where Clive Palmer and his United Australia Party is concerned.

I have been highly critical of Palmer’s putative party in this column, and with good reason, and today it has returned the favour by proving why such criticism is valid.

The news late this afternoon that disgraced former Speaker and member for Fisher, Peter Slipper, had joined the UAP — and been accepted — was only a surprise insofar as I was stunned Palmer would or could tolerate Slipper’s presence in his organisation.

After all — as documented in a post by ABC election analyst Antony Green — Slipper is probably the biggest party-hopper in Australian political history; a six-time turncoat facing criminal charges over allegedly improper use of travel entitlements and a slew of other questions, Slipper probably isn’t the type of public face any party needs in 2013.

(Especially if they want to poll any votes among women).

Even so, this development is one that should never have been made public in the form it was; any political party operating on a remotely professional basis would have intercepted Slipper’s membership application, vetoed it, and then claimed adherence to internal policy if news of the abortive attempt by Slipper to join ever made it into the cold light of day.

Asked about Slipper’s membership of his party today, Palmer was reported in the Fairfax press as saying that he had been told by people within the party organisation that “they were talking (to Mr Slipper)” but he had not realised he had joined.

When questioned on whether he was happy at the news, however, he added: “I didn’t say that at all. I haven’t got a view on it.”

To be fair to Palmer, it’s likely he was caught on the hop to some extent; it seems clear the application process for Slipper has been expeditious, to say the least.

But even so, consider the sequence of events. This isn’t a good look.

  • 4pm — news breaks that Slipper’s membership of the UAP has been approved.
  • 4-9pm — a press and internet frenzy breaks out, with speculation centred on Slipper’s ability to provide the UAP with the single member of Parliament needed to qualify and be registered as a party with the Australian Electoral Commission.
  • Somewhere in between — “Foundation Members” of the UAP convene, and “a majority vote unanimously” to “cease” Slipper’s UAP membership.
  • 9pm — public confirmation is given that Slipper has been thrown out of the UAP.

It seems obvious that Slipper’s attempt to join the UAP has been on foot for a while; if this is indeed the case, then none of today’s events ought to have occurred.

The entire episode could and should have been summarily dealt with as described earlier; that is how a professional political party would have resolved it: quickly, cleanly, quietly, and without fanfare or unwanted publicity.

This column does not necessarily suggest that Palmer had any personal input into the approval of Slipper as a member of his party — quite the contrary.

But the matter raises some serious questions about Palmer’s UAP and its fitness to offer itself for elected service in the first place.

It suggests a party organisation that is inept, inefficient, unco-ordinated and thoroughly deficient where political tactics and strategy are concerned.

It raises questions over exactly who in Palmer’s organisation thought it appropriate to authorise as a party member a disgraced individual facing criminal charges, and whose track record of loyal service to each political organisation he has belonged to or allied with should raise substantial red flags wherever he might surface.

And whilst money is no obstacle for the UAP — Palmer has declared himself incorruptible on the basis that even a bribe of a billion dollars would be meaningless to him — today’s events clearly illustrate that whilst money is important to any political operation, it is no substitute for sound judgement, political acumen, and a bit of old-fashioned common sense.

We have discussed Palmer and his UAP at some length in this column since he officially announced his intention to form his own party; “delusional” is the word I have most regularly used to describe Palmer’s aim of being Prime Minister and of winning 100 seats in Parliament at his first tilt.

The Australian‘s Chris Kenny retweeted earlier tonight something from former Liberal Party strategist Mark Textor, with what he called a “four word insightful analysis” of today’s events with Peter Slipper and the UAP: “Rat Jumps On Titanic.”

At the time, preceding as it did Slipper’s expulsion, it was particularly apt.

In light of the developments since, however, I’m more inclined to say that Palmer’s party couldn’t organise a sea cruise if their lives depended on it.

Slipper’s membership application should never have been accepted by the UAP.

The fact it was is a potent signal to the electorate that whatever appeal the UAP might hold for wavering voters, the last thing it can be accused of is soundness of judgement.

And despite the fact the issue was dealt with speedily in the end, the damage is done; indeed, Slipper may well have sunk any prospect the UAP had of winning seats before the ship has even left the quay.

It underscores the politically lethal commodity Slipper has rightly become in his fall from public favour.

And it underlines the hard reality that anyone attempting to start a political party in Australia really is up against it, and that just because there is cash in the till there is never any guarantee of hitting paydirt.

 

UPDATE (1.10am, Sunday 12 May): Four hours after reports carrying the UAP’s statement that Slipper’s membership of their party had been terminated, Slipper is reported as saying he withdrew his application after being invited to join the UAP.

Readers can decide which side of the story is the right one; I am happy to publish the link to the later report of Slipper’s denial in the interests of balance.

Whichever way you look at it, though, it adds to the point that this isn’t a good look, and doesn’t paint the UAP in the rosiest or the most professional light.