JOANNE MCCARTHY: Hitting the public purse

A FEW days before the federal election a big glossy brochure landed in my mailbox from the then Member for Dobell, Labor-turned-independent Craig Thomson.

How in heaven’s name can he afford that? I thought. A line at the bottom had the answer.

We paid for it. Taxpayers. A chunk of Thomson’s doomed campaign to hold his seat, while fighting more than 150 charges of defrauding the Health Services Union of about $28,000, was courtesy of us, via his parliamentary printing allowance.

That’s the same parliamentary largesse umbrella that subsidised Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s Port Macquarie Ironman ‘‘mental therapy’’ trip in 2011, flights to a couple of weddings, West Australian MP Don Randall’s flight to Cairns with his wife just as they were finalising a Cairns investment purchase, and numerous other clear-as-mud entitlements claimed by Labor and Coalition politicians over the past few years. All courtesy of us.

Thomson told me the brochure, distributed to all Dobell households, cost up to $20,000. That was just one of the mailouts paid via the printing allowance, but he didn’t have a total cost. Someone else did the bookkeeping, he said.

It wasn’t Thomson’s parliamentary printing allowance that paid for the postal votes distributed by Labor to Dobell residents during the election campaign.

No. We – taxpayers – paid for that little item via the parliamentary printing allowance of NSW Labor Senator Ursula Stephens, who confirmed her entitlements covered a postal vote mailout to 8500 NSW residents – 7500 of them in Dobell – at a cost of $1.19 per item.

All of the above is in line with parliamentary entitlement printing allowance rules as they now stand. That’s my point.

Dobell is just one seat. Thomson did not have a hope in hell of winning it, but because he was the sitting MP he could hit the public purse.

Across the country, according to Thomson, virtually every other sitting MP would have been doing the same, and other senators would have been chipping in using their entitlements.

All of this at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars and beyond scrutiny until some time next year under current reporting rules. And all of this despite recommendations more than three years ago to specifically ban sitting MPs from using their printing allowances during election campaigns, or funding postal votes during election campaigns.

Don’t take my word for it.

Go to recommendations 14 and 15 of the Parliamentary Entitlement Review in April 2010, headed by respected retired public servant Barbara Belcher and including former Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chairman Professor Allan Fels. You can find it on the Department of Finance website.

Politicians since 2010 have not acted on those recommendations, despite the review noting the use of printing allowance entitlements gave sitting MPs an advantage during election campaigns, and the availability of extended pre-polling made postal votes largely redundant.

Politicians are relying on the media and the public to tire of the entitlements issue, despite outrage over the use and repayment of parliamentary entitlements once they were publicised.

They’re relying on the lack of transparency, even in relation to the material that is available, to exhaust the media and the public.

And they’re relying on public silence, or ridiculous explanations when politicians are caught, for the whole thing to die away until next time it is exposed, when they won’t do anything again.

Which is why we shouldn’t get tired, disheartened or exhausted.

In public statements  Abbott has appeared to changed his position, but he’s done nothing. There would ‘‘always be arguments at the margins’’ was his opening gambit, followed a week or so later by the line that he was ‘‘yet to see a concrete proposal he was attracted to’’.

When the stories kept coming and the community got involved in hunting down dodgy pollie perks he switched to ‘‘I’m not saying we are never going to change the system’’ and would remain ‘‘vigilant’’, while rejecting the idea for an independent assessment of claims.

It all leaves the impression that holding a few hundred politicians accountable for the public millions they receive is way too complicated for the federal government, which is ridiculous.

So here’s a thought, Mr Abbott.

Have a chat over a cup of tea with Barbara Belcher, Allan Fels, and even the National Audit Office, which has written five separate reports on how to improve the system.

Have a system – as recommended by Fels – requiring politicians to record expenses on their websites, in real time, because it is public money after all. Just in case people had forgotten.

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