Tony Abbott announced a whole-scale review of the entitlements system – to be led by former head of the Department of Finance, David Tune, and the head of the remuneration tribunal, John Conde – which will aim to give “the public confidence”.
Rather than giving the public confidence, how about a genuine review of past claims.
In 2009 the Parliamentary Expenses scandal in the UK arose when MPs and members of the House of Lords were found to have systematically rorted their claims for travel and accommodation expenses. Many MPs were found to have made claims for expenses which were not “wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred for the performance of a Member’s parliamentary duties”.
The claims published by The Daily Telegraph ultimately covered the entire gamut of Parliament – all major parties and several minor ones, ministers (including the Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, cabinet and shadow cabinet members) through to backbenchers, and members of both the House of Lords and the House of Commons. A number of members were expelled from their parties, or would not stand for re-election; some members repaid, in part or whole, sums they had previously claimed. There were also payments to the UK tax authority for taxes on possible gains or income previously not paid.
Several MPs were charged and convicted. For example:
- Elliot Morley was sentenced to 10 months jail for dishonestly claiming over ₤30,000 (around $50000) in parliamentary expenses
- John Taylor, Baron of Warwick was sentenced to 12 months jail for falsely claiming ₤11277 (around $20000) parliamentary expenses for travel costs
- Jim Devine was sentenced to 16 months jail for dishonestly claiming ₤8385 (around $15200) in expenses
- Baron Hanningfield was sentenced to 9 months jail for incorrectly claiming ₤14000 (around $25000) in travel allowances.
Almost ₤500 million was voluntarily repaid.
In a move Kathy Jackson would be proud of, Tony Blair’s expenses were shredded ‘by mistake’ when they were the subject of a legal bid to have them published.
In the wake of the scandal the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority was created, intended to manage Members’ expenses at an “arm’s length” from the House, ending the historical self-policing by MPs of their expenses. The IPSA is responsible for: paying MPs’ annual salaries; drawing up, reviewing, and administering an MPs’ allowances scheme; providing MPs with publicly available information relating to taxation issues; preparing the MPs’ code of conduct relating to financial interests; and determining the procedures for investigations and complaints relating to MPs. There are now two codes of conduct for MPs to follow: a non-statutory code drawn up by the House of Commons itself; and a statutory code drawn up by the IPSA.
ImpUte lists 25 examples between August 2009 and December 2012 of Tony Abbott claiming work-related expenses totalling over $84,000 while “volunteering”, running, swimming, cycling and attending major sporting events.
The rules allow for travel allowance to be paid to Opposition Office Holders for the cost of accommodation, meals, and incidentals during overnight stays away from home when the stay is “primarily due to official business such as sittings of Parliament, parliamentary committee meetings, official business as Opposition Office Holder, or parliamentary political party meetings.”
There are many other dubious entitlement claims not included in ImpUte’s list. For example Tony Abbott and family travelled to Melbourne on the day of the F1 grand prix in 2011 and claimed over $2800 in work-related travel entitlements. Was it a coincidence he was working in Melbourne that particular day or did he travel to attend the race? On another occasion in 2011 Abbott travelled to Melbourne, participated in the Puffing Billy charity race, and received over $3000 in travel entitlements for two days. Did he just happen to be in Melbourne on work-related purposes at the time of another sports event?
Then there were the costs of his stunts – visiting a Gold Coast rubbish tip, chartered flights to outback stations to discuss live cattle exports, visiting an ice works, chartered flights to North Queensland to discuss his wild rivers private members bill, his infamous trip to Whyalla. All of these trips seem little more than a taxpayer funded backdrop for his daily media appearances.
There is no doubt that we need a tightening up of the rules but are we likely to see a review of past claims? Not a chance. Considering the UK experience, it is understandable why both sides of politics are resisting independent oversight.
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