Words by: Freya Hall
In 2012, Treasurer Joe Hockey warned ‘the Age of Entitlement is over’, but the recent spate of MP travel entitlement scandals begs the question: for whom? Mind-blowingly, more than $500 million is funnelled into political entitlements each and every year.
Following Bronwyn Bishop’s resignation as Speaker last week, Tony Abbott announced a full-scale review of the parliamentarian entitlements system:
‘Regrettably, notwithstanding rules that this government put in place … there are still too many situations where members of parliament can do things that are inside entitlement, but outside public expectations’.
Abbott was keen to deflect from Bishop, declaring the issue as a systemic one. Is the problem systemic? It seems that yes, for once, Abbott may be right.
‘Senators and Members are entitled to travel within Australia at Australian Government expense for certain purposes. Senators and Members are responsible for ensuring that any travel at Australian Government expense is undertaken in accordance with their entitlements, i.e., in most circumstances only for Parliamentary, electorate or official business, but not party business’.
Sure, if MP’s need to travel in order to undertake legitimate work in their role as public representatives then they should not be expected to meet additional out-of-pocket costs. But where should the line be drawn? What amounts to ‘Parliamentary, electorate or official business’? And how should parliamentarians be expected to travel?
Sometimes reality is funnier than fiction, so let’s play a fun game of (not so) hypothetical:
Peter Slipper was acquitted of defrauding the Commonwealth earlier this year. He had been charged with this offence because he spent $900 on hire cars while taking tours of wineries around Canberra on three separate occasions. It was found that the prosecution couldn’t prove that Slipper wasn’t on parliamentary business.
Former Environment Minister and current Shadow Minister for Finance, Tony Burke, claimed $90 in travel expenses to attend a Robbie Williams concert in 2014. Burke claimed he needed to meet with the promoter of the concert and therefore the trip was valid on the grounds that it constituted ‘official political business’. After questions were raised, he agreed to pay back the $90.
In 2006, Bronwyn Bishop, then the Liberal member for the Division of Mackellar, claimed $600 for return flights to Albury. From there she travelled to Wangaratta where she attended the wedding of former Liberal frontbencher Sophie Mirabella. Bishop claimed she was travelling on business related to her role in the Parliament’s Family and Human Services Committee.
However, there is no record of any Committee business in Albury on the dates of Bishop’s travel. Furthermore, in order to travel individually on behalf of the Committee Bishop would have had to receive the Committee’s permission and that permission would have been recorded – no such record exists.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott also claimed more than $1000 for travel expenses to attend Mirabella’s wedding, although he has since repaid this money.
Not one to learn from her mistakes, Bishop attended another wedding in 2007 and claimed $288 for a one-night stay in Brisbane. This time she was attending the wedding of MP Teresa Gambaro, and once again Bishop claimed to be on ‘Committee chair business’, but no records have been able to confirm this.
Abbott ordered her to repay the money as well as a $1300 fine. Tut tut Ms Bishop.
Although Part 4.1 of the Entitlement Handbook states expenses cannot be claimed for ‘party business’, this statement must be more ambiguous than it appears because politicians continue to make these claims.
In November 2014 Bronwyn Bishop spent $5227 on a return helicopter flight from Melbourne to Geelong to attend a Liberal Party function at a golf club. Bishop claimed the trip was ‘within entitlements’ because she ‘had a number of meetings during her visit to Victoria’, despite the fact that no details or specifics have been provided regarding these alleged meetings.
When the flight came to light, and under immense media pressure, Bishop repaid the fare. Bronwyn’s choice of transport was put down to ‘a lapse of judgment’ by the Prime Minister, and with much reluctance, she eventually resigned.
Just days after delivering last year’s incredibly unpopular federal budget Treasurer Joe Hockey billed taxpayers more than $20,000 for a series of VIP flights. Hockey, and 11 of his federal Coalition colleagues, plus staff, flew on board the government’s 737 jet to Melbourne and Brisbane where they attended Liberal party functions. Hockey stated it was impractical to take a commercial flight. A spokesperson declared ‘the cost of the Treasurer’s travel was within guidelines and entitlements’. No repercussions have ensued.
Earlier this year Tony Abbott used a taxpayer-funded jet to attend a lavish birthday party in Melbourne for Liberal Party donor, Paul Marks. Marks personally donated $250,000 to the Liberal Party in the 2013/2014 financial year, while his company donated $500,000.
A spokesperson for the Prime Minister declared he had ‘other work related engagements’ to attend in Melbourne during this time, but did not specify what those engagements were.
Our illustrious leader also came under fire last year when he admitted to fellow MP’s that he had to schedule an early morning visit to a cancer research centre in Melbourne to justify billing taxpayers to be in the city for a ‘private function’ the night before.
Under Part 4.9 of the Entitlements Handbook senators and members are also entitled to claim expenses for ‘family reunion travel’ … however, that’s a whole other can of worms in itself. Theoretically, MP’s are able to claim exorbitant travel expenses on the basis that their family is visiting them while they are conducting ‘Parliamentary, electorate or official business’.
Therefore, for all intents and purposes it appears as though MP’s can claim expenses for almost any sort of inter and intrastate travel, including sometimes international, under the guise of conducting ‘Parliamentary, electorate or official business’ with a very low likelihood there will be repercussions.
It literally took a woman flying a private helicopter for anyone to take notice – why? Because everyone is doing it. This is a widespread, bi-partisan, systemic problem. See here if you really want to blow an artery.
But really, why are we surprised by MP’s indulgences? MP’s don’t magically transform into righteous beacons of morality once they are sworn into office – as crazy as this sounds they are human, with human flaws, including greed.
I’m not saying that what MP’s are doing is right, but I’m saying that if we had clearer laws and regulations we may not be in this mess, or we may not be in this mess as often. By having such ambiguous rules we are enabling our politicians to manipulate the system whilst avoiding consequence because they never ‘technically’ break the law.