If the calculations that Tony Abbott has claimed over $90 000 in questionable expenses while in Opposition are true (and I don’t make the claim that they are – but clearly someone has gone to the trouble of compiling expenses most would regard as questionable), it’s a matter for some degree of astonishment that the press gallery didn’t bother to look into them while Mr Abbott was engaged on a frenzied pursuit of Peter Slipper and Craig Thomson over alleged misuse of public and union funds respectively.
I’m also interested that one journalist wrote today that he had been inclined to see the controversy over wedding expenses and George Brandis’ library purchases as a “storm in a teacup”. Perhaps the professional followers of the political class regard all this as par for the course. It’s difficult to believe otherwise.
Of course, this scandal goes beyond the LNP’s ranks. No one should have been particularly surprised to read that some ALP members’ justifications for overseas “study trips” sound as spurious as those of jetsetting Coalition MPs. Nor should there be great surprise that the ALP’s shadow attorney-general, Mark Dreyfus QC, has been caught out having to repay the expenses associated with a skiing trip.
Less spectacular, but worse still, is the fact that the ALP and Coalition joined forces to exempt much of the spending on Ministerial and Parliamentary expenses from scrutiny.
Tad Tietze has rightly characterised this cesspool as a key moment in a “crisis of political representation”. So remote are the political class from the atrophied social bases of their respective political parties that this sort of reckless and unethical behaviour seems acceptable in their eyes, and the media (with a few notable exceptions) fails to probe the systemic outrage that almost everyone else can see.
Margo Kingston has gone to great lengths to investigate and document Tony Abbott’s expenses, following the claims that the new Prime Minister has many questions to answer:
It’s hard to imagine a bigger test of the integrity and fairness of our democratic institutions than that. Will the press gallery get forensic and press for answers from the PM and action from the authorities? Will the AFP investigate? Will the Finance Department audit his enormous expenses claims while in opposition to search for more rorting?
What we actually need is a no holds barred enquiry. And we need actual reform.
I would question whether “entitlements” for “study tours” should exist at all. It makes a mockery of any form of representation that MPs could suddenly decide that particular “ethnic cultures” or cycling should warrant European trips. If most of us have interests somewhat extraneous to our jobs, and investigation of those interests require travel to Europe, we pay ourselves.
There’s no rationality to any notion that particular bugbears of members and Senators should enable them to do any sort of “study” they wish. Nor, I would suggest, are the multifarious parliamentary delegations to here, there and everywhere the most effective ways of building relationships and assessing comparative public policy.
It’s as if pollies are still living in the land of the long lunch.
No doubt we’ll hear that pollies are paid too little. And that they should get cash instead of “allowances” and “entitlements”.
Well, maybe in comparison to their mates in law and accounting firms, or wherever. But the claim that all these apparently brilliant lawyers are making huge financial sacrifices to represent us, and that we are somehow benefited by their condescension in so doing, is not one I find convincing.
Years ago, research on union democracy found that unions where officials were paid the same or less than their members fostered both better representation and more genuine democracy than those where officials were paid substantially more.
I’m sure there’s a broader lesson there.
Footnote: Incidentally, in terms of the political impact of this scandal – particularly the weddings and the sorts of justifications proffered – this controversy should explode any notion that the LNP somehow gets the “Aussie battler”.
NB: Previous discussion at LP on this thread.