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. 

Better Late Than Never, Bronwyn Bishop Resigns

FINALLY — after 18 fraught days that have caused the Abbott government no end of grief — embattled Speaker of the House of Representatives Bronwyn Bishop has resigned, following an expenses scandal any idiot could have foreseen. Not for the first time, Bishop has shown extremely poor judgement. Her resignation — after a grudging apology that had to be extracted almost by force — will not undo the political damage her behaviour has caused.

If we fast forward by a year or so, the greatest problem with the fiasco over Bronwyn Bishop’s $5,227 helicopter flight down the Geelong road may well be that it is seen in retrospect as an emblem of the Abbott government’s fall from office, in the same way Leo McLeay’s compensation claim on the taxpayer for a bicycle accident and Ros Kelly’s whiteboard for allocating over a billion dollars of government grants remain, even today, as symbols of the decline and eventual defeat of the ALP under Paul Keating.

But the fact she has resigned — at least a fortnight too late — is to be welcomed on all sides of politics, even if it is a textbook case of “better late than never.”

I should clarify that my calls over the past few weeks for Bishop to be “sacked” — a move that would require a vote in the House of Representatives — were not made in ignorance; rather, in the interests of some brevity, I chose to use colloquial terms for dismissal that would not lose readers in talk of the minutiae of parliamentary process.

But lining up to fire Bishop is exactly what Prime Minister Tony Abbott should have been doing for more than a fortnight. The fact he did not, and indeed continually restated support and sympathy for Bishop, will linger as a black mark against both himself and his government.

Abbott’s argument that Bishop’s conduct fell within allowable guidelines but outside public standards is valid, and indeed probably true, but ranged against the unstinting support he has offered Bishop since the storm broke almost three weeks ago, it sounds like the hollow (and futile) defence it was always going to prove to be.

Bishop’s self-sacrifice (made, if media reports are to be believed, only in the face of a threatened mass revolt by Cabinet ministers and backbench Coalition MPs alike) will afford the government some breathing space, and a successor — possibly Abbott ally and controversial minister, Kevin Andrews — will be appointed to the post soon enough.

But the government will wear the stain and the opprobrium for having dug in to defend Bishop when the claim in question was indefensible; only an idiot could have taken that particular charter flight at that reported cost and remained oblivious to the near-certainty it would sooner or later detonate in the government’s collective face.

The rumoured additional $6,000 claim that we alluded to yesterday — an aeroplane charter to evade a two-hour drive from Sydney — is only marginally less reprehensible than the helicopter flight that set this scandal in motion, and was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back in persuading Bishop that her position was completely untenable.

Bronwyn Bishop is no stranger to controversy: her tenure as shadow Health minister in the 1990s ended by a declaration of unequivocal support for tobacco advertising, and her tenure as Aged care minister in the Howard government terminated by a scandal over kerosene being used as a scabies treatment in nursing homes. On each occasion, her resilience and determination to bounce back ensured she recovered.

In this case, it seems Bishop’s long political career is drawing to a close, for now aged 72 — and having found herself at the epicentre of perhaps one scandal too many — there seems little prospect of any frontbench return, and one would hope Bishop would have the grace to reconsider contesting her ultra-safe seat on Sydney’s lower North Shore at the approaching federal election.

Yet whilst Bishop will be allowed to slip quietly into retirement, the political damage she has caused will not so easily be undone; once again, the Abbott government has been found wanting where sound judgement and astute practices of governance are concerned, and the cumulative effects of these missteps could cause it real trouble when next it faces voters.

As I outlined yesterday, a prudent response — and one which should help the government reclaim the initiative, and retrieve its standing — would be to institute an immediate and rigorous overhaul of the arrangements that govern and administer travel allowances and other entitlements for MPs, with the creation of a Parliamentary Travel and Expenses Commission to remove arbitrary control of these items from the Speaker’s Office and the Prime Minister’s Office, placing them instead at arms’ length from the government of the day and under the remit of an independent Commission.

I’m convinced this is the only way lasting, meaningful reform of MP entitlements can be enacted, and it now remains to be seen — given Abbott has promised “not tinkering but real reform” — what shape this reform takes.

For the ALP and other cynical opportunists like Clive Palmer, Bishop and her helicopter have provided a significant free hit in terms of deflecting public scrutiny from their own (considerable) woes that they have milked for all it is worth, and will continue to do so.

In Labor’s case at least, its “leader,” Bill Shorten, has switched from demanding Bishop’s resignation to now stating her resignation isn’t enough because she quit on account of a sense she was obliged to rather than “to do the right thing.” It should be noted that Shorten’s hunger for accountability begins and ends at the ranks of Australia’s conservative parties, and if he wants to be taken seriously he will allow the Registered Organisations legislation to pass the Senate — and allow the rotten unions that spawned his career to be subjected to the same standards of accountability as the business community is.

Until or unless that happens, nothing Shorten has to say about accountability or probity is worth a pinch of shit, and should certainly not be taken seriously.

But Bishop has left her Prime Minister compromised by the ill-advised loyalty he has once again shown a close ally beyond the point they became a liability; she has allowed the government to appear to be greedy, punch-drunk on hubris, and on the take; she has directly lowered the (already poor) level of esteem in which politics and politicians are held; and she has made re-election for the Liberal Party a much tougher ask.

There are those who believe what Bishop has done is no different to any other travel entitlements scandal in the past that has eventually blown over; as I have maintained throughout, Bishop’s case is nothing of the sort, coming as it does at a time people are completely fed up with politicians, in the face of the most vicious opposition Australia has perhaps ever seen, and involving the most unjustifiable and flagrant abuse of funds — $5,227 for a helicopter ride that a one-hour car trip could have covered at a sliver at the cost — most people have ever heard of.

Above all, Bishop has caused damage to Parliament and thumbed her nose at standards of decency that must not be incidental to political life, but underpin it.

Still, Bishop has fallen on her sword; it is now up to Abbott and his colleagues to pick up the pieces and to rebuild public trust where it enjoys very little indeed of this commodity, whilst others seek to profit politically from Bishop’s stupidity and the continuing government’s foibles.

Bishop is gone, better late than never. Good riddance.

 

Bishop-gate: Sack The Speaker And Seize The Initiative

WITH THE FURORE over travel entitlement claims made on the taxpayer by Speaker Bronwyn Bishop refusing to die down or go away — and with the issue causing serious damage in the electorate — the Abbott government has no choice but to involuntarily remove Bishop from her post if she won’t go quietly, and to overhaul entitlements for MPs once and for all. Time, with an election on the horizon, is now conspiring against the federal Coalition.

Now that the (justified) outrage over Bronwyn Bishop’s $5,227 helicopter flight — at public expense — to travel what would otherwise have been a one-hour road trip for a fraction of the price is well into its third week, there are two points I want to make at the outset this morning.

One, that “simply standing firm” — a tactic from the political handbook that has served the Abbott government exceedingly poorly at times since it came to office, deployed as it has been in defiance of public opinion over the wrong issues to try to ride out — will, if it is observed for much longer over the Bronwyn Bishop saga, completely destroy any remaining vestiges of the political capital the government may have rebuilt in the six months since the abortive leadership coup against Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Two — and as cynically pragmatic and politically expedient as this may sound — with just one year remaining before it must call an election for the House of Representatives and at least half the Senate, this government is fast running out of time to staunch the bleeding from a seemingly endless parade of self-inflicted wounds that may very well prove fatal if allowed to fester and suppurate all the way to the ballot box.

And to be clear, the uproar over Bishop is not some common-or-garden transgression that voters will dismiss wearily as “just another” case of greedy politicians caught with their hands in the till.

I believe this particular case signals the time when people have finally had an absolute gutful of MPs making ridiculous and outrageous imposts upon the public purse and will stomach no more, and whilst some in the government may be indignant that it’s the Coalition wearing the fallout when ample evidence exists to suggest its counterparts at the ALP are every bit as culpable when it comes to the abuse of travel entitlements, the flipside of this is that the opportunity exists for the Coalition to be the party that cleans up the system once and for all.

Sydney’s Daily Telegraph is today carrying a story that details other claims made by Mrs Bishop that are certain to fuel public fury against her; I’m going to let readers peruse the details of that, for I think there’s little point in re-listing and itemising them all here.

But this isn’t going to go away; a fair case can be made that the ALP is running hard on the Bishop issue for no better reason than to embarrass the government and seek a high-profile scalp, and that case extends as far as to make the observation that sitting in a brittle glass house indeed, Labor is in no position to throw stones.

Yet for now, it is the Coalition that is in government, and in the time-honoured way these things play out, it is the Coalition that bears the responsibility for cleaning up the mess.

More than two weeks ago, this column called for Bronwyn Bishop to be sacked if she refused to resign; the fact the issue remains front-page news almost three weeks after it broke is telling enough, but if anything, the damage it is doing to the Abbott government — and to public confidence in politics and politicians generally — is accelerating the longer it drags on.

To be clear, I stand by — and reiterate — the call for Bishop to quit voluntarily or be fired as Speaker.

There are suggestions, such as this case made for Bishop’s dismissal by The Australian‘s Peter van Onselen, that Bishop would retaliate in a fashion calculated to inflict colossal damage to Abbott’s (and the government’s) standing if sacked from her post: I acknowledge in these situations there is always the risk of a jilted ego determining to exact revenge in the most destructive manner possible, but in this instance the risks are outweighed by the political damage Bishop is already wreaking on the Abbott government.

But beyond that consideration, the fact Abbott is standing by Bishop appears to be yet another instance of the loyalty for which he is renowned — and which, in ordinary circumstances, would be admirable — being thoroughly misguided, and in any case taken so far as to be ridiculous.

Just like his loyalty to Chief of Staff Peta Credlin, who engineered a Gestapo-like regime for operating a government that has repeatedly proven wholly inept, staffed with hand-picked individuals who have proven incapable of prosecuting government “strategy” or effectively communicating its message, and who has been shielded from any consequences for its deficiencies through Prime Ministerial loyalty.

Just like his loyalty to Treasurer Joe Hockey, whose disastrous 2014 budget obliterated the Coalition’s standing in the electorate, and which (as I have repeatedly observed) actually targeted floating voters in marginal Coalition-held seats, as well as squibbing the task of paring back profligate government spending and waste which it had been explicitly elected to tackle.

In Hockey’s case and over that dreadful budget, the “simply stand firm” strategy, in the face of total Senate intransigence, was another factor.

And it may well be the case that Bishop is Abbott’s mentor, and that the pair go back decades, and that for years they have had each other’s backs, and so on.

But whichever way you cut it, Bishop’s behaviour as Speaker and the licence it now appears she has taken over unwarranted travel entitlements clearly shows that it is a relationship she has abused, with scant regard for the pressure her actions have placed on Abbott. There is no basis for continued loyalty here. Abbott has to make the hard call if Bishop refuses to spare him the bother.

And lest anyone doubt just how misplaced Abbott’s loyalty toward Bishop really is, veteran journalist Laurie Oakes neatly sums up the case against her today and points out — accurately — that almost all of Bishop’s parliamentary colleagues exude no goodwill toward her at all, let alone the inclination to defend her in light of the melloring she has brought upon the government by her actions.

Yet with all that said — and in particular, with an eye to the Coalition’s opponents, who will make merry with the Bishop issue all the way to an election if she is not removed forthwith — there is a big opportunity here for Abbott and his government, if they have the mettle to grasp the initiative and run with it.

To say that rorting expenses and entitlements — not an accusation, mind, but rather a reflection of the way this kind of thing is viewed in the community — feeds heavily into the low regard in which politics and its practitioners are held publicly is an understatement.

Every government is forced to deal with this kind of thing, and expenses scandals involving light-fingered MPs and the taxpayer dollar seem a perennial fixture of Australian politics and a permanent stain on those involved in it.

And to be sure, there are others with iffy expense claims just waiting to jump out of the woodwork: some involving government MPs, some involving those from the ALP. Manager of opposition business Tony Burke has been outed publicly as a priority target for the Coalition, and a primary target for retribution if Bishop is forced to vacate the Speaker’s chair.

I see two ways the Abbott government could reform the whole system of travel expenses, entitlements, and ambit claims upon the taxpayer that generate so much public opprobrium; and if it can’t or won’t fix the federal budget and the colossal debt pile and structural deficits shamelessly bequeathed by Labor Treasurer Wayne Swan, it can at least fix this.

It goes without saying that Bishop must be replaced. Full stop. Defence minister Kevin Andrews would be a replacement that ticked most of the requisite political boxes for Abbott.

But beyond that, one option would be to increase the remuneration of MPs by 50% and abolish all entitlements relating to travel, accommodation, vehicle hire or charter, and similar expenses altogether: the claims, rather than being directly funded or reimbursed from public monies, could become items to be submitted as work-related deductions on MPs’ tax returns each year — just like millions of ordinary taxpayers do — and the Australian Taxation Office given the necessary oversight to set guidelines around what is appropriate and what is not, and to take action against those MPs making frivolous, ambit, or downright illegitimate claims.

Just like it does against ordinary taxpayers who submit claims at tax time that cannot be substantiated.

The other option would be to create a new statutory entity — the Parliamentary Travel and Expenses Commission — which would operate at arms’ length from government (removing control over entitlements from the Speaker’s office and the Prime Minister’s Office) and making it next to impossible for claims like Bishop’s $5,227 helicopter ride to ever be paid for by taxpayers.

Obviously, such an entity would be subject to a charter, and charged with assessing claims according to rigorous guidelines; the establishment of a Parliamentary Travel and Expenses Commission could follow a short amnesty for miscreant MPs to voluntarily (and privately) make full reimbursements of dodgy expenses that have been paid, and would afford the opportunity to wind back excesses such as “study” trips abroad that see MPs file “reports” plagiarised from Google and Wikipedia, or $500 a night bills for luxury hotel stays in places quality accommodation could be sourced for half the price, or claims for “away from home” accommodation allowances when MPs are staying in properties they (or their spouses) own, and so forth.

The Commission could either pre-approve and pay for travel and other expenses in advance, provided they meet whatever strict criteria is established to govern them; alternatively (and to cover the real instances of short-notice and/or urgent requirements MPs are invariably confronted by from time to time) it could reimburse on presentation of receipts, and after any eligibility test has been applied to ensure compliance with the aforesaid strict guidelines.

Properly constituted and armed with real teeth to pursue recidivist offenders like Bronwyn Bishop, such a Commission might even go some tiny way toward restoring public confidence that their money isn’t being frittered away on the unwarranted fancies of those elected to govern.

That Bronwyn Bishop must go, if there is to be any constructive resolution to the mess that has enveloped her, is beyond doubt.

But an opportunity to provide redress and resolution — and to help ensure this sort of thing can never happen again — is there for the Abbott government to take.

It remains to be seen whether it will take it. Buoyed by public outrage and fortified by its trademark populist political opportunism, it is not an opportunity the ALP will fail to milk if the government declines to act on it — and this issue, which works in Labor’s favour, stands to be seen in retrospect as one of the plethora of self-inflicted wounds that costs the Coalition office after a single term in power.

 

Parliamentary Travel Expenses: Fix It, And Stick To It

THE OPPORTUNISTIC, hypocritical issue of parliamentary travel expenses is to be addressed by the Abbott government; MPs of all political stripes should have input into the solution — and abide by it. This grimy political horse has been flogged too often, doing zero for the reputation of politics or politicians.

As readers will know, I have only dealt with this subject once; I actually find the issue distasteful in the extreme, because it isn’t about right or wrong per se — it’s invariably the cheapest shot available to whoever raises it, which is always the party in opposition.

Indeed, since the “scandal” of travel expense entitlements for MPs initially got its latest airing — interestingly enough, by Labor MPs fresh from a massive election defeat — the issue has been picked up by sections of the mainstream press and pursued.

Which, of course, is exactly what the ALP wanted; after all, its attack dogs had to abandon the chase themselves when it emerged its own MPs had been refunding dubiously claimed travel monies — just as they had been trying to crucify key government figures for doing.

At no stage, during the latest incarnation of the “scandal,” has there been any suggestion of illegality or improper claiming of monies by any of the figures singled out by Labor — Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Attorney-General George Brandis SC and the Nationals’ Barnaby Joyce the most prominent of them.

Nor — by the same token — has there been any suggestion of misconduct on behalf of the Labor Party figures who were unintentionally “outed” by the furore the party’s attack hounds unleashed.

Rather, Labor’s strategy was one of name and shame; to attempt to build moral pressure and public indignation — and outrage — over the “disgrace,” as it begins its process of attempting to tear down key figures in the Abbott government and/or Abbott himself.

The Fairfax press is today carrying a report, quoting Finance minister Matthias Cormann, which makes it clear that “improvements” will be made to the rules governing politicians’ travel entitlements in response to the “scandal” this latest episode has triggered.

I think it’s incumbent on Cormann and Special Minister of State Michael Ronaldson to take the time in determining the nature of such “improvements” to ensure that — once and for all — so-called “revelations” of the nature purportedly uncovered regarding Abbott, Brandis, Joyce et al cease to be unearthed every time there is a change of government.

If need be, submissions should be made by all parties and the independents; a revised code/framework/structure devised and agreed upon; and the whole greasy episode put in the past.

I have said before that a legitimate system of travel entitlements for politicians will, by its nature and appearance, always trigger public murmurings of “snouts in the trough.”

To me, these bleatings are far preferable to accusations that MPs are never seen in the community: accusations that will arise if they are required to pay for all travel and expenses consequent upon legitimate parliamentary business from their own salaries.

Where there is misconduct, or where rorting occurs, such matters should be expeditiously investigated and referred to Police, with criminal charges pursued if appropriate — as is occurring at present in relation to alleged matters concerning disgraced former Speaker Peter Slipper.

But that sentiment is neither intended to give licence for opposition parties to make “whoopee” with cheap stunts based on purported “rorts,” nor for MPs in general to take a mile when a reasonable system of entitlements ought simply extend them an inch.

The Abbott government has an opportunity to do the country a favour here: sort out the travel entitlements system once and for all, tighten it up and clarify it, get consensus from all interested parties — i.e. other parties’ MPs — and put the whole thing to bed.

Readers will note I have resisted the temptation to lay into the ALP boots and all over this. Even so, whether it is Labor raising “irregularities” now, or Coalition figures doing the same thing in opposition (most notably when it came to the movements of one Kevin 747), I think the voting public deserves an awful lot better than this.

Politics and politicians are already held in low enough regard without repetitive, habitual “scandals” being trotted out over the very same issue every time a new opposition — desperate for fodder — needs a little public outrage to detract from its own inadequacies.

Simply stated, this needs to be sorted out, shut down, and left well alone.

Enough is enough.

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.

“Slippery” Peter Slipper To Face Criminal Charges

ONE issue we’ve kept an eye on over the past year or so at The Red And The Blue is set to explode, with news that LNP traitor, former speaker and overall grub Peter Slipper is to face criminal charges; whilst he is entitled to a presumption of innocence until proven guilty, the news is welcome.

In news just broken by the Fairfax press in The Age, Slipper is set to answer three charges of “dishonestly causing a risk of a loss to the Commonwealth,” which — whilst their true nature was not specified by Police — sound an awful lot like charges over travel expense rorts.

Slipper will be formally charged with the offences on 15 February, in an appearance in the Canberra Magistrates’ Court, to which he has been summonsed to appear.

The summons has been issued by Police who investigated allegations of travel expense fraud against Slipper that arose from the sexual harassment proceedings initiated against him by former staffer James Ashby.

This column has ample reason to dislike the odious Slipper on both personal and political grounds, and in light of the apparent nature of the charges welcomes today’s developments.

Certainly, there have been an abundance of “interesting stories” about Slipper over the years, and the forthcoming proceedings against him at Court should at least clear some of these up once and for all — one way or the other.

Even so, we will refrain from further comment for now until Slippery has had his day in Court, and I emphasise to all readers that Slipper — like anyone else — is entitled to the presumption of innocence until or unless proven otherwise.

Accordingly, whilst comments are welcome in line with standard practice, they will be rigorously scrutinised, and editorial discretion will be used if anything prejudicial to Slipper’s case is submitted.

Even so, my final word — for now — is that if he is proven guilty, it will prove once and for all that staying one step ahead of trouble, ultimately, is sometimes one step too far.

We will keep an eye on the proceedings as they fall due next month.