Ley Quits, But No-One Is Responsible For Anything

AFTER A week in which dubious expense claims have rocked the government, Health minister Sussan Ley has quit; PM Malcolm Turnbull has again proven spineless, failing to sack her once she admitted breaching guidelines, and a host of MPs — notably ALP “leader” Bill Shorten — have been hauled into the muck over their own iffy claims. Nobody is to blame; nobody admitted fault. Next time a similar scandal erupts, the storyline will be identical.

It’s a reasonably quick post from me tonight; I have had the unpleasant duty today of having one of our cats put down — he had total kidney failure — and in any case, the “real event” will come tomorrow, when I tip a bucket over turncoat Queensland LNP MP and contemptible shitbag Steve Dickson, who has jumped ship to One Nation ahead of that state’s looming election. Stay tuned.

But the resignation this afternoon of Health minister Sussan Ley — after a week of needless trauma her questionable travel expenses claims have caused the Turnbull government — was too little, too late, graceless in nature and arrogantly defiant to the end.

Ms Ley, a likeable and highly intelligent figure, has nonetheless exhibited appalling judgement and a complete dearth of political insight, first by judging some of her foibles to be refundable by the taxpayer to begin with, and secondly by maintaining — even in resignation — that she has done nothing wrong.

The same Ms Ley who mere days ago admitted some of her claims probably failed to meet guidelines has nevertheless today declared her confidence that she “followed the rules:” an obvious, and total, contradiction.

How anyone could think it appropriate to personally fly a chartered plane along busy commercial trunk routes, at roughly ten times the cost to taxpayers of a business class airfare on Qantas, beggars belief, but Ms Ley clearly did: and far from commercial timetables being “unsuitable,” it is a telling thought that this commercial pilot who was also a Cabinet minister might also have had the less noble motive of needing to fly a certain number of hours to maintain her accreditation.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull should have sacked Ms Ley on the spot when she admitted breaching ministerial guidelines; by failing to do so, he has (again) proven himself a spineless wonder, and more concerned with maintaining fealty to those who have voted for him in leadership ballots than with any credible enforcement of worthwhile standards in public office.

In this regard, his bluster about being careful with taxpayers’ money, and achieving value for money, can only be regarded as histrionic nonsense: Turnbull’s own actions (or lack of them) betray these words as just another serve of waffling Turnbull bullshit.

This episode has caused great damage to the government, for whereas scandals based around so-called parliamentary entitlements have typically been brushed under the carpet — sometimes with the token mounting of a scapegoat if the alleged transgression is deemed serious enough — people really are at the point where they are fed up with what they see as the coddling of politicians at public expense, and fed up with it to the point of voting with their feet.

This anger is fuelling the rise of populist, opportunistic protest fronts that are unviable as prospective parties of government: One Nation is one of these; more established bandwagons like the Communist Party Greens are another. The latter is ironic, given the supposedly environmental Greens not only rank among the heaviest parliamentary users of air travel, but have also joined in the chorus baying for blood whenever Coalition identities have found themselves in self-inflicted difficulty with their expenses claims.

Turnbull’s failure to sack Ley simply means his government has taken the full hit in terms of the opprobrium this episode has generated, and is unlikely to benefit from the clear air (if any) the obfuscating, heavily qualified and downright defiant resignation offered up by Ms Ley today might otherwise have generated.

And it should not go unremarked upon, given Turnbull’s leadership of the Liberal Party is quickly becoming a week-by-week proposition, that the outrageous farce over Bronwyn Bishop’s charter of a helicopter to avoid a 55km drive was among the final few nails hammered into the coffin of Tony Abbott’s leadership: if Turnbull hoped to deflect any leadership implications of the Sussan Ley affair, his inactivity has also put a stop to that.

But as ever, when these things happen, a predictable rash of tit-for-tat “revelations” have found their way to a willing press pack in the wake of the Ley bombshells; ALP frontbencher Chris Bowen, with holiday expenses for his family to Ayer’s Rock. Deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop’s trips to the Portsea polo and the AFL Grand Final with her partner. Perhaps most damningly, Bill Shorten’s $55k bill for family travel, fully five times the nearest comparable equivalent: Tony Abbott’s spend on the same line item in 2013, at $11,000. One ALP stooge suggested to me on social media that Shorten’s tally was justifiable because he had little kids, whereas Abbott’s children were adults. Yet two of Tony’s kids, in 2010, were still in high school.

There goes that theory, but it does show that some people never learn.

It is encouraging that Turnbull will move (or says he will move) to establish an independent commission to administer and oversee MPs’ travel expenses.

But the recommendations for reform of this area — delivered to the government last March — have never been implemented. This timeframe is entirely contained within Turnbull’s stint as PM.

Malcolm is also now confronted by the need for yet another ministerial reshuffle — a task at which he has thus far repeatedly proven spectacularly inept — and if yet more scandals engulf yet more ministers after yet another of Turnbull’s hand-selected reshuffles, what little credibility he currently enjoys as Prime Minister will be further eroded.

But the big story out of all of this is that whilst Ley has finally bowed to the inevitable, nobody has taken any blame for anything, and nobody has admitted fault; Ley resigned but escaped disciplinary action from her leader, who has talked about a lot of seemingly principled action he intends to take but whose past record, especially in the aftermath of the Bronwyn Bishop scandal, suggests nobody should be holding their breath.

The lack of decency and the contempt for the tax-paying public among the so-called political class, when it comes to travel perks and other goodies, is as endless as it is an affront.

It’s a fine old world when a select clique can piss millions of dollars of other people’s money up against a post with nary a care: and if the going gets too hot, one token sacrifice keeps the gravy train rolling along for everyone else. No-one, it seems, is responsible for anything.

But past form suggests any move to bring MP entitlements into line with community expectations will be doomed before it begins; self-interest is a powerful motivator, but the entitlement mentality that makes these scandals possible in the first place trumps everything else in sight.

As sure as night follows day, at some point within the next year, we will no doubt be discussing some other travel rorts scandal, and some other token patsy will be thrown to the wolves as the “penance.”

When it happens, the storyline then will be identical to the one we have followed now. The expectation of anything different, or better, is simply too much to ask.

Especially, it seems, with Malcolm Turnbull in charge of the whole shebang.

 

Sack Ley: Not “Socialism,” Not “Sexism,” And “Sorry” Doesn’t Fix It

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. 

Ley Down Your Guns: Health Minister Must Resign

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.