The Politics Of Envy


Last week Peter Timmins wrote on that the Australian media were so preoccupied with explosive revelations about UK MPs’ expenses that they were overlooking a similar scandal right here in Australia. Ironically, his article was published on the same day that the local tabloid media kicked-off a concerted campaign to reveal that complimentary sporting tickets, free bottles of wine and other nasty things disguised as reasonable entitlements were making their way into our politicians’ grubby little hands. Despite the tabloids assuring us that "ordinary" Australians were outraged, I’m sure this was not quite the scandal that Timmins had in mind.

In the past couple of weeks the UK Parliament has been rocked to its core by revelations that MPs and peers have systematically, mercilessly and shamelessly rorted the British taxpayer for decades, claiming ridiculous expenses such as moat cleaning, replacement dunny seats, and gardening. Taxpayers are justifiably furious, and the little trust that remained for elected representatives is surely now lost.

Meanwhile in Australia, the News Ltd tabloids have run a week’s worth of outraged stories about the perks enjoyed by politicians, cleverly contrasted with solemn statements about how ordinary Australians are doing it tough. MPs and Senators have been painted as selfish, greedy and ethics-free, in it for the cash and pork — not a completely baseless accusation in some cases, but not an entirely accurate one either.

While some of the criticism of our representatives’ employment benefits is very much deserved (the lack of accountability for electorate allowances is a prime example, as Timmins rightly points out), and there’s no doubt that ordinary Australians are doing it tough, the tabloids’ attack has only served to distract from the real issue: that all MPs’ expenditure should be open to public scrutiny and that the system of accountability needs reform.

Politics has a bad name and its practitioners are viewed suspiciously by the electorate. Politicians are held to be dishonest, self-serving and grubby, mainly because politicians have a long history of being dishonest, self-serving and grubby. Taxpayers are resentful about their hard-earned dollars funding chauffeur-driven cars and business class air travel, with this resentment fuelled mainly by envy. But it would be a shame if we, as a society facilitated by the media, let unthinking resentment and envy prevent us from considering and discussing issues fairly and rationally. Some of them may be dishonest, self-serving bastards, but should that preclude them from receiving employment benefits just like any other employee?

Everyone with a job, no matter where they sit on the employment food chain, enjoys a few perks at work. Dishpigs in cafes get free lattes, electricians get 36 hour weeks, office workers get free post-it notes, and consultants get "entertainment" expense accounts. Top managers and CEOs, in addition to salaries in the high six- or seven-figure range, barely have to pay for a thing and live working lives far more luxurious than those of politicians.

It’s easy to lose sight of politicians’ good intentions when the worst side of their nature is frequently on display, but the vast majority of those in our Parliament are there because they want to make this country a better place. Even if you don’t agree with their individual politics, you’ve got to admire their determination to try to make a difference, and politics is often a thankless job.

However, last week Australian MPs and Senators were fingered for receiving free counselling, free tickets to sporting and cultural events, free bottles of wine from constituents, and overnight allowances for time spent in Canberra. The tone of reporting was outraged and sensationalist, with no attempt at all to highlight the case in favour of any of these benefits. One can only speculate about how much of the reporting is genuine journalistic interest in the issue and how much is about drumming up populist support to sell papers — but, cynical or not, it has succeeded in making the punters angry.

The two main issues being discussed were the payment of overnight allowances for time spent in Canberra and subsidised access to personal counselling. Both were painted as rorts, and both were concluded to be wastes of taxpayer dollars. But there is an extremely strong case in favour of these "rorts".

Since Canberra can only be in one place (that one place conveniently located nowhere near anybody’s actual home), and the 226 MPs and Senators are required to spend a massive chunk of their year living there away from their real homes and families, each is paid a nightly allowance to offset the cost of their accommodation in the capital.

It’s difficult to reasonably argue that it is unfair to offset an employee’s expenses in this situation, but the News Ltd tabloids did just that. The damning evidence in their eyes was that some politicians have purchased Canberra homes and are putting the allowance towards paying off mortgages, and if a politician chooses to do this rather than spend their months in hotel rooms or rented flats, this is somehow rorting the taxpayer. Politicians with second homes they wouldn’t require if they weren’t required to spend so much time in Canberra! How very dare they? Of course, no "ordinary Australians" who are "doing it tough" own second homes.

But the most juvenile and anti-intellectual attack on politicians’ working conditions was the sarcastic reporting about their access to subsidised personal counselling — the same personal counselling provided through Employee Assistance Programs to employees of most medium- and large-sized organisations, including the News Ltd journalists who wrote the articles in question. The stories shamelessly implied that it’s inconceivable for politicians to have mental health issues given that they, you know, have it so good. How can somebody with an overnight allowance and free tickets to the AFL grand final (along with the umpteen other holders of complimentary passes) possibly have anxiety, stress or worse? Only "ordinary Australians" get stressed.

Politicans, love them or loathe them, have difficult jobs. The hours are long, Canberra is a social vacuum inside a pressure cooker, and workloads are intense. Leaving aside the seat-warming backbenchers, most politicians spend their working lives in the spotlight dealing with constant criticism from the media and the public. Even the most thick-skinned individual can’t help but take the odd knock to their self-esteem and confidence when faced with a steady stream of flak. As we saw in NSW in 2005 with ex-opposition leader John Brogden, and with numerous federal politicians who have had the courage to speak out over the years, politicians are human just like us and are equally susceptible to tragedy.

It has been widely accepted in recent years that mental health is just as important to a person’s safety at work as physical health, and that the stresses and pressures associated with employment are just as dangerous to one’s wellbeing as physical injury. Businesses have acknowledged that preventing mental distress is just as important as preventing slips and falls. Politicians’ salaries and benefits may be taxpayer funded, but they are employees who deserve to be safe at work nonetheless.

However, none of these arguments made it to print in the newspapers prosecuting the case against these "rorts", and their readers responded to the dog whistle in letters and online as desired. For publications generally committed to defending workers’ rights, the suggestion that politicians have less of a right to occupational health and safety than other employees is simply offensive.

By all means, let’s lay the boot into politicians when they deserve it — and there’s plenty of fodder for legitimate criticism. But let’s reserve our condemnation for individuals found to have used their reasonable entitlements unreasonably — and argue for more accountability in the system — rather than condemn politicians for doing their demanding and difficult jobs.

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