‘Electoral business’ behind John Alexander’s taxpayer trip to Margaret River

October 21, 2013 – 8:42PM

Jonathan Swan, Lisa Visentin

Former tennis player and federal MP John Alexander, who has faced questions over his travel expenses.

Former tennis player and federal MP John Alexander has faced questions over his travel expenses. Photo: Dean Sewell

The tourist town of Yallingup, in Western Australia’s idyllic Margaret River region, is better known for its wine than its traffic congestion. But it was the latter issue among others that appears to have drawn the NSW MP John Alexander and a family member on a taxpayer-funded mission to the seaside town.

A reader participating in Fairfax Media’s investigation of politicians’ expenses asked us to investigate what “electorate business” Mr Alexander conducted in Margaret River during a trip in July 2012 that would benefit his Sydney constituents.

The West Australian trip – which included a stopover in Perth – cost taxpayers $5376. The Margaret River portion cost $720.

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A Finance Department spokeswoman said within the rules governing MP entitlements, the expenses category of “electorate business” is “purpose-based not definition-based.” She added that MPs did not necessarily need to be in their own electorates to be conducting electorate business.

But Fairfax readers have questioned why Mr Alexander needed to travel to Margaret River to apparently investigate traffic congestion. Why not spend a morning on Sydney’s M4 motorway?

This question, and many like it, have emerged in response to the current system of federal MP entitlements, and the self-regulation that has allowed politicians to justify a wide range of activities – weddings, ironman races, visits to investment properties – as official business.

It is believed that Mr Alexander’s trip began in Perth, where he was the keynote speaker at Curtin University, discussing a proposed community sports centre.

Mr Alexander’s spokesman would not discuss the details of the electorate business that brought the MP to wine country, and only said: “Mr Alexander’s travel involved a series of work commitments as part of his responsibilities as a Member of the Federal Parliament, as the Member for Bennelong, as a member of the Coalition Regional, Rural Affairs, Infrastructure & Transport Committee and as Chair of the Coalition Sustainable Cities Policy Taskforce.”

But it is believed that while staying in Yallingup, the tennis legend and occupant of John Howard’s old seat of Bennelong travelled to Bunbury to meet with local business leaders for discussions on the development of satellite cities, relating to his role as chair of the Coalition Sustainable Cities Taskforce.

Mr Alexander stayed in Margaret River for six nights but only claimed travel allowance for the three nights that related to his work commitments.

He is also believed to have attended a cyber bullying workshop with the Liberal MP for Forrest, Nola Marino, and was a special guest at a community event that included discussions with local council on a multi-sports centre development.

When it comes to evaluating the merits of expense claims, the Department of Finance has been reluctant to judge whether MPs’ activities justify their decisions to bill taxpayers for travel and accommodation.

The West Australian MP Don Randall said the department could not “provide definitive advice” on whether his trip to Cairns last November satisfied his explanation of “electorate business”.

Besides taking possession of his Cairns investment property, Mr Randall is still, nearly a week after the original revelations surfaced, yet to explain what else drew him and his wife on business class flights to Cairns last November at a cost to taxpayers of more than $5000.

Fairfax Media has lodged a freedom of information request with the Finance Department to find out what advice was given to Mr Randall over his Cairns trip.

Following intense media pressure last week, Mr Randall promised to repay the money spent on his overnight stay in Cairns to “alleviate any ambiguity”.

The Australian Federal Police says it is not currently investigating Mr Randall’s expenses, but many readers have asked why the MP was allowed to repay his Cairns trip, while the former Speaker Peter Slipper was not allowed to repay his taxpayer-funded tour of wineries. Mr Slipper is facing police charges and possible jail time over the matter.

Mr Randall has also resisted explaining what he was doing in Melbourne on Saturday, September 15, 2012.

He claimed the trip on the grounds of “sittings of Parliament” despite the fact it was a weekend and Parliament has not sat consistently in Melbourne since 1927. The trip for Mr Randall and a family member cost taxpayers $5300.

The Sydney Morning Herald

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