October 9, 2013
Editor-at-large, The Canberra Times
Prevarication, self-indulgence and lack of leadership mean he will cop blame for everyone’s dodgy claims
The great parliamentary expenses massacre has very little, as such, to do with weddings, ironman races or skiing breaks. Or to early advent of the silly season. Its capture of the popular imagination comes not from partisan politics but its confirmation that more politicians than one might think are entirely out of touch with popular opinion.
The smarties are keeping their heads down, muttering to themselves that they ”cannot win” this debate. A good many of these are, however, just as much out of touch. Attempts to explain political expenses ”at the margin” should not persuade members of the public, and would rarely persuade Australian Tax Office staff were they submitted as legitimate business expenses. This is not because the public is stupid but because politicians are stupid in thinking that the public wants them to charge such matters to expenses. They should cover them, when they do, from their own ample salaries.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott addresses the media during a press conference, in Bali. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
In 40 years of reporting, I have never argued that politicians are paid too much, and never argued against political pay rises. But politicians, and ministers, are not significantly underpaid – and there would be no a shortage of applicants for the jobs, even among present incumbents at half the remuneration. The arrangements for covering working expenses are lavish, and not sufficiently accountable. They turn on an unjustified ”honour system” and an even more unjustified Minchin Protocol – not sanctioned by law – which allows every false or dubious claim to be paid back at any time (even a decade later) if the public decides, before the police, that the claim was a ”mistake”.
Even more arrogant is the apparent bipartisan feeling – best exemplified by Prime Minister Tony Abbott at the moment, but there are others including Labor politicians who have suggested it – that if a politician admits a ”mistake” and repays money, there is no further legitimate public interest in the greed, arrogance or effrontery involved. So helpful too that, by bipartisan agreement, no politician other than Peter Slipper has to bear personal, civil or criminal, responsibility for ”mistakes” said to have been made by staff.
The one being done the most damage over the past week is Tony Abbott. This is not because he is a spectacular rorter – though there is evidence enough for a fair-minded person to call his a pattern of dubious claims. But he is not in the gun as a particularly bad rorter. He’s in the gun as a representative rorter who, being in high public position, ought to know better, ought to set a better example, and who ought to be more straightforward with the public when caught out. He has not yet even said sorry on his own account, let alone his party’s or his Parliament’s.
Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd, John Howard and prime ministers before should cringe as well. Only a minority of politicians are champion rorters, but there have always been some, on both sides, and they have been more pandered to than suppressed. A few politicians are obsessed with expenses and allowances, and with maximising their take from them.
Not all are backbenchers. Sir Paul Hasluck, for example, was scathing about the private greed and rorting of Sir John McEwen when deputy prime minister.
When Abbott was demolishing Gillard he showed, yet again, that bad behaviour hurts a government more than it hurts the opposition. But he is learning that the scrutiny and criticism directed at a prime minister greatly exceeds that of an opposition leader. He has often been very uncomfortable in the spotlight over the past month. All the more so with his efforts to suppress information, or to physically flee from reporters.
Abbott has his own questions to answer. But he is also being slated – and not only by the usual suspects – for a marked lack of moral leadership on the issue. He was one who promised higher standards. His failure to articulate general principles for his fellows – ones with which the public could agree – sits alongside his own highly unconvincing excuses about difficult choices at the margins, and, now about repayment ”for the avoidance of doubt.” These are weasel words. He does not look a leader, he looks a prevaricator. The public is as good a judge of that as they are of people who stretch the limits of moral entitlement to public money.
His offences, and those of his or Gillard’s ministers are not resigning matters. The laws in question are (deliberately) so loose and elastic that it is very difficult to make charges stick – even when a highly politicised police force is trying. But they deprive leaders of credit in the bank for times when they do need moral authority or legitimacy to win arguments or the right to coerce ordinary citizens.
It might be summed up by asking a single mum how she would feel about being lectured about being provident by a man who stays in $400 hotel rooms at public expense at Port Macquarie just to indulge his appetite for an endorphin rush. That might be aggravated by the impression that Abbott’s compulsive (and intrinsically unhealthy) fitness regime is about raising money for charity. If he is, it is not right that it is made possible only by considerable public underwriting.
It’s a bit like rich socialites spending hundreds of thousands staging gala balls to raise mere hundreds, or thousands, for some worthy cause.
The instinct to judge him harshly is aggravated by his own unrestrained criticism of rorting, whether, allegedly, by Slipper or by Craig Thomson, and by his present dismissive suggestions that the press simply drop the subject. The spin emerging from his office is that he should not be distracted from proving himself the international statesmen. In fact – though the enthusiastic Murdoch coverage might disguise this – he is mostly grovelling to various Asian leaders, as he ”unsays” hurtful things he once said for purely domestic consumption and advantage while in opposition. And he is blaming, falsely, all misunderstandings on his predecessors, and bagging his nation abroad.
Tony Abbott made an art form of using missteps to show the electorate how Labor was out of touch with the problems that ordinary decent working Australians faced. Now he, and Barnaby Joyce and George Brandis are showing it.
People may well understand that any politician must press flesh, attend meetings, be open to lobbying anywhere and any time, and undergo any number of indignities, including frequent absence from home, in the nature of Parliamentary and electoral duties.
That is why politicians are well paid – by any standards, and certainly international ones. There are always a few millionaire politicians – a Rudd, for example, a Malcolm Turnbull or a Clive Palmer – for whom the salary is chickenfeed. For about 70 per cent of politicians, including Abbott, the parliamentary salary (even at backbench levels) is greater than any remuneration they have previously enjoyed. On any form of official business, even in Canberra, they get generous expenses, even when (as in many cases, including with ministers, they own the accommodation in which they are staying). They (mostly) travel first class.
Most expense ambiguity flows from overlap between personal and public benefit. The greater the overlap the more one can and should regard it as an incident of office, to be paid for from salary. If there’s a shortage, perhaps the party organisations should pay from the millions they now receive under public funding. Then, at least, there might be some interest in value for money.
Jack Waterford is the editor-at-Large at The Canberra Times.