Choppergate: honesty system not good enough anymore


House of Reps

Following the resignation of Bronwyn Bishop as Speaker, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has announced there will be a “root and branch” review of the entitlement system. Having been forced into this position after the political damage inflicted by “Choppergate”, the Prime Minister will be hoping that tightening the rules for MPs’ claims will be an important first step in renewing public confidence in our political leaders.

The problem with the current system is that when it comes to travel allowances, federal members and senators get to decide what they are entitled to. MPs can decide if they are on “parliamentary”, “electorate” or “official” business, and the framework providing these entitlements is complex and opaque.

Public policy expert, Professor John Wanna, explains that the current system is “effectively an honesty system for parliamentarians. If they want to stay within the rules, they do, but there is ample opportunity to bend them”.

Indeed, it is important to remember that Bronwyn Bishop did not break any of the rules governing parliamentary allowances. According to her parliamentary colleagues, the Speaker’s travel expenses simply failed the “pub test”. Before backing down, apologising, and then standing down as Speaker, Bishop was adamant that her charter flights were taken “in accordance with the guidelines and within the entitlements”. Social media went wild.

Evidently, there are many grey areas that make determining travel claims difficult. If an MP travels interstate on official business, but then spends most of their time on unofficial or party business, what is the rule? Does a two hour meeting justify a $10,000 expense claim for a three day trip with business class flights?

Allan Fels, former Chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, believes that the answer lies in greater transparency and openness. Fels was a member of the 2010 Belcher inquiry – the most recent investigation into parliamentary entitlements – which made 39 recommendations to government. Two of the key recommendations of the Belcher inquiry were that the website of every politician provide a link to all of the MP’s claims, and that the rules governing entitlements be simplified under a single framework. Both of these recommendations were ignored.

Independent senator Nick Xenophon wants Australia to copy the reforms that followed the British parliamentary expenses scandal of 2009, which revealed MPs charging taxpayers for mortgage repayments, pornography, and moat cleaning. British MPs’ claims are now decided by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa), which, like the Belcher inquiry recommendation, discloses the figures so the public can see exactly what MPs spent in carrying out their parliamentary duties.

Promisingly, Allan Fels believes the terms of reference of Tony Abbott’s latest review of parliamentary entitlements open the door to Australia having an independent regulator in the near future.

But, the difficulty is politicians have a lot to lose through a more transparent and open system; their generous parliamentary allowance is one of the perks of the job. This morning, in a rare display of bipartisanship, Labor’s Anthony Albanese appeared on breakfast television to defend Education Minister Christopher Pyne spending $7000 of taxpayer money flying his family business class from Adelaide to Canberra.

Earlier this week, no one in the government chose to go after Labor MP Tony Burke’s questionable use of entitlements, as it was revealed he flew his family business class to Uluru to join him on ministerial business in 2012.

However, as natural political enemies come together to defend their entitlements, the Australian public grows increasingly cynical. It is abundantly clear that politicians are not exercising common sense judgement with their claims, and this only reinforces the view of many Australians that our elected representatives are mostly in it for themselves.

The Prime Minister’s root and branch review cannot come soon enough.


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