HAPPY AS A PIG IN PERKS
Tony Abbott, defiantly facing down the first major political challenge of his prime ministership, may well regret his decision to compete in the 2011 Port Macquarie Ironman.
Abbott rode the bike leg of the modified ironman around the streets of the seaside town for his team, completing the 90-kilometre journey in about three hours. It was disappointing time, he said, but nonetheless worth it.
"I've been crook for the last three weeks so I didn't do a lot of preparation, but maybe that's just an excuse," the famously competitive Abbott said. "It's mental therapy for me so I think it's very important I get as much exercise as I can to ensure I have a stable mind for politics."
It's unlikely Abbott's participation in the gruelling ironman competition is still soothing his nerves. The trip is now at the centre of the first scandal of his prime ministership, a totem of politicians' misuse of entitlements and their generous perks funded by the taxpayer.
Four cabinet members - including Abbott - have now had to repay money for faulty expense claims as the saga has unfolded, the latest being Immigration Minister Scott Morrison on Friday. The ironman race was part of a spree of sporting and other events Abbott has attended, or participated in, since he became opposition leader. At a cost to taxpayers of more than $23,000, there were trips to the Melbourne Cup with wife Margaret and daughter Frances, as well as the Coffs Coast Cycle Challenge and Pier to Pub swim in Lorne.
For the trip to the New South Wales mid-north coast for the ironman, Abbott claimed a $349 travel allowance for his overnight stay and flights totalling $941.10, noting the purpose as "official business" when he lodged the paperwork.
Abbott reasons that the ironman was a community event and part of a politician's working life. But "official business", according to the entitlements handbook, is "limited to properly constituted meetings of a government advisory committee or task force, or functions representing a minister or presiding officer".
He also revealed yesterday, after three days of no answers, that he went to a local Coalition drinks night in Port Macquarie the day before the event. Even so, the ironman race was clearly Abbott's main purpose for visiting Port Macquarie and he remains exposed. But he is hardly alone in hitting up taxpayers for a panoply of expenses. It is a bipartisan prediliction.
A Fairfax Media expose has highlighted a litany of highly questionable expense claims, from Attorney-General George Brandis' extensive library to the trip of Labor's Bernie Ripoli - a cycling enthusiast - to Europe to study cycling infrastructure, conveniently timed so he could take in the last two stages of the Tour de France.
Then there are the numerous appearances at weddings in India and Australia, all paid for, at least in part, by taxpayers. The Prime Minister has reimbursed two claims he made to attend the weddings of Peter Slipper and Sophie Mirabella, but he has refused to pay back anything more.
Moreover, he has steadfastly refused to implement any review of the entitlements regime even though the saga has lit up talkback radio, garnered front-page coverage for a fortnight and prompted widespread calls for reforms.
The politics for Abbott are risky, especially for a Prime Minister who has alleged there was a budget emergency and repeated the mantra that he would "stop the waste" all through the election campaign. Entitlements to MPs cost about $100 million a year. But, while the bureaucracy will be slashed and public servants will no longer be able to fly business class on short-haul flights, the perk remains for their political masters.
Certainly, there is disquiet in government ranks about Abbott's stance and questions about his political judgment. Victorian Liberal MP Russell Broadbent said that taxpayer-funded attendance at weddings and sporting events did not pass the "pub test".
For most ordinary Australians, the prospect of getting their employer to fund their participation in athletic events, extensive libraries and weddings is farcical. And those looking for a tax deduction from the Australian Tax Office for attending a wedding would be most unlikely to succeed. Yet politicians serve the people. It is the taxpayers who are their bosses and we are apparently powerless to stop the entitlements gravy train.
"Think of it this way," said Ted Mack, the independent politician who famously retired from federal politics so he wouldn't qualify for Parliament's lucrative and lifelong super scheme. "If anybody in any job was able to set their own entitlements, of course then you are going to end up with what is happening with our politicians ... The real problem is the whole system is self-regulated."
Mack argues that there has been a 30-year expansion of entitlements that has run largely unchecked and evolved into a mind-blowingly complex but lucrative source of income for our elected representatives.
Allan Fels, part of a team that reviewed the schemes in 2010, said politicians believed they were poorly remunerated compared with senior executives in the private sector.
"Basically, politicians want more pay. Basically, the public outcry stops that," he told ABC Radio. "So instead, they get a lot of entitlements and allowances."
If the generous perks were ever justified by a low base salary and long working hours, the argument lacks any credibility now.
Politicians' base salary stands at $195,190 per annum, up 38.5 per cent over the past three years, compared with a rise of less than 10 per cent for average wages. And most of the 226 federal MPs get salary loadings anyway, from the opposition's deputy whips to the prime minister, who enjoys a base salary of more than $500,000, substantially more than US President Barack Obama.
On top of that comes an electoral allowance of between $32,000 and $46,000 and perks for travel, accommodation, book purchases, study tours. Spouses and family members also enjoy some of the benefits.
It is impossible to get detailed and definitive figures for entitlements. A Fairfax Media analysis has found each member of Parliament now receives a minimum of more than $500,000 a year in salary, expenses, allowances and perks.
The base salary rise, granted by an independent tribunal, was supposed to compensate for the loss of some entitlements. But, in reality, politicians have given up very little.
They can now claim only one overseas study tour each year, comprising a round-the-world first class fare, accommodation, expenses and the accompaniment of a spouse. (Previously, they could roll the entitlement of a trip into future years if it wasn't taken up, allowing multiple trips in any given year.)
The gold pass giving copious free travel to some retiring politicians and their spouses and family members has also been wound back. The entitlements system, according to the report co-written by Fels, "has become less transparent as the number and diversity of benefits provided to senators and members have increased".
There is probably no better example of spiralling entitlements than the extensive library accumulated by Brandis over the past three years.
An investigation by blogger Stephen Murray uncovered that Brandis had spent $12,808 of taxpayer money on publications between July 2009 and December 2012.
Along with newspapers and law reports were books on Byzantium, the Tudors and the Spanish Civil War, as well as biographies of Stalin and Trotsky and the author Christopher Hitchens.
The explanation from Brandis bordered on the absurd. He said he was billing taxpayers for the fictional political thriller The Marmalade Files because it was a thinly veiled account of real events in which he was involved.
Less than a decade ago, the publications perk was capped at $450 a year and was $300 for most members. Now the entitlement is worth at least $3699 for sitting members and $4848 per year for senators.
Rob Oakeshott, the former federal MP, says many politicians play by the rules and dread the complexity of filling in returns. But others take a different tack.
"There is a subculture of politicians that obsess about this shit," he said. "There are those that are just loving this stuff, who work it for everything it's worth."
Asked whether he would include Abbott in this subculture, Oakeshott declined to pass judgment, although he noted that he had participated in the "Pollie Pedal" charity event alongside Abbott, as well as an ironman challenge, and never considered lodging an expense claim. "It didn't even cross my mind," he said.
Abbott this week reasoned that there would "always be arguments around the margins" but "I'm not proposing to change the system". "You don't want members of Parliament to be prisoners in their offices."
Even those calling for reform acknowledge many politicians work quite hard, and attending community functions can be part of their work. But there is no independent monitoring of entitlements beyond salaries and even less transparency. And, all the while, the money flowing to politicians has surged.
The immense complexity of the sprawling entitlements regime justifies a rejig on its own. Entitlements are covered by some 11 acts of Parliament and three sets of regulations. Telephone services for senators and members, for example, are provided through seven overlapping entitlements, under four heads of authority.
There is a sense that Abbott is protecting himself and his own kind by refusing to countenance any change, amplified by the sorry history of federal politicians squibbing on the issue.
Ted Mack noted he proposed to then prime minister Bob Hawke in the early 1990s that there be a code of conduct for politicians. Hawke backed away but his successor, John Howard, did introduce one. After a slew of frontbenchers were forced to resign or were sacked for breaches, Howard dumped the code.
The attempted suicide of Labor member Nick Sherry, who was under fire for misusing the travel allowance, prompted a detente, and entitlements have rarely been a source of serious political sparring. The so-called Minchin Protocol was developed in 2000 allowing politicians to pay back any mistaken expense as long as it is minor.
Former Speaker Peter Slipper is the only politician since to face police interest in his use of entitlements, and only because his former staff member James Ashby went straight to the Australian Federal Police.
The contentious Slipper affair is currently before the courts after an early finding by one judge that Ashby was involved in a "conspiracy" with Liberal Party operatives to humiliate Slipper.
In more recent times, an independent review headed by former public servant Barbara Belcher recommended 39 changes, of which the Labor government adopted just two, including the reform that led to the big jump in salary. It also squibbed on a deal with the independents and Greens to appoint a commissioner of integrity to scrutinise entitlements.
This year, four parliamentary departments were exempted from freedom-of-information requests, meaning reporters can no longer obtain details of the spending habits of presiding officers such as the Speaker and the nature of office fitouts in Parliament House.
Both major parties have a strong interest in maintaining the status quo, which explains the muted reaction of Labor to community concern about perks. For starters, they are allowed to claim travel and accommodation related to party functions on the taxpayer.
There are a welter of reform proposals, including paying all politicians a lump sum and doing away with entitlements; denying politicians business class seats on short-haul flights; and forcing them to pay penalties for incorrect claims.
Transparency and accountability, as well as a simplification of rules, are much-needed reforms. An integrity commissioner and close to real-time reporting of expense claims on the internet are the reforms with the greatest support.
The Belcher review advocated that each MP puts up their entitlement claims on their official websites.
Reform is long overdue by any measure, but Tony Abbott is digging in. He was a young politician when John Howard's government was rocked by its travel rorts scandal and saw close hand how it destabilised the team.
Abbott wants to kill the issue and carry on. Both major parties have embarrassing entitlement breaches yet to be fully ventilated. It will be the minor parties and independents who will lead the push for reform, as well as the media, bloggers and fed-up citizens.
Base Salary: $195,130
Loadings: $39,038 *
average of $27,561
average of $42,576
Domestic flights: $47,520
Car costs: $35,348
Office admin costs (including publications, stationery and printing allowances): $114,121
Family travel: $5986
* More than half of MPs get a salary loading on top of the base, ranging from $5856 to $312,304 for the PM. Figure quoted is for median loading of 20 per cent.
** Minimum electoral allowance. Some politicians get up to $46,000 if they represent large areas.
All other figures are average entitlement per politician based on 2012 data. Does not include entitlements for office fitouts and facilities.