8 Oct 2013

Abbott Can't Backpedal On Expenses Now

By Ben Eltham

As opposition leader, Tony Abbott ruthlessly pursued Peter Slipper and Craig Thomson over improper financials. He can't escape scrutiny over his own expenses scandal, writes Ben Eltham

Cast your minds back to the previous parliament. After the dramatic betrayal of Kevin Rudd and a disastrous election campaign, Julia Gillard’s Labor government suffered a big swing against it at the 2010 election, losing its majority in the House of Representatives. The second-term government survived with the barest of majorities. Labor’s numbers in the House depended on a gaggle of crossbenchers.

The Coalition, enraged at falling just short of victory, embarked on a three-year campaign of destabilisation. Tremendous pressure was brought to bear on Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor, the country independents whose votes kept Labor in office. No-confidence motions and suspensions of standing orders were almost daily occurrences. As Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott ramped up the rhetoric to hysterical levels, declaring a new crisis or an emergency with each passing week.

In this febrile environment, the personal failings of individual members of parliament became fair game in the battle for high office. When Craig Thomson, an undistinguished Labor MP from the central coast of New South Wales, ran into trouble over his record as a union official, the Coalition's search for dirt left no stone unturned.

The media played its part with gusto. Thomson was hounded at every opportunity, his career in the Health Services Union raked over in forensic detail by gun investigators like Fairfax’s Kate McClymont. His character was also smeared with rather less subtlety by the Murdoch tabloids. Few niceties were observed. Important conventions, like the presumption of innocence, were trashed.

At the same time as Labor was struggling to cobble together a House majority, machinations in the Queensland Liberal-National Party also began to exert their pull on national affairs. Peter Slipper, a long-serving Coalition MP from the Sunshine Coast seat of Fisher, was targeted in a nasty pre-selection battle by former Howard minister Mal Brough. When Brough and Queensland LNP numbers man Mark McArdle engineered a deal to dump Slipper as the sitting member, Slipper jumped at an offer by Labor’s Anthony Albanese to become the new Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Conservative reaction was swift and terrible. The Murdoch tabloids cartooned Slipper as a rat with giant whiskers. His former colleagues marked him for destruction. Unbeknownst to Slipper, a staffer in his office named James Ashby was actually in league with Brough. As we know from the Federal Court judgment of Justice Rares, Ashby and Brough were part of a plan to bring Slipper down.

Simultaneously, Slipper’s expenses were being pored over in the parliament by senior Coalition figures such as George Brandis. It is widely believed that Brandis lodged a formal complaint to the Australian Federal Police over the alleged misuse of Slipper’s parliamentary travel entitlements. When the AFP eventually investigated, they duly laid charges against Slipper. The former Speaker will go to court to defend himself over around $1,000 in government Cabcharges. He is pleading not guilty. Slipper will have his day in court, but his political career is over, having lost his seat in the 2013 election. The voters of Fisher elected Mal Brough.  

It’s ironic, therefore, that the first major scandal to engulf the Abbott government relates to parliamentary travel entitlements. In particular, it has emerged that a number of very senior Coalition figures, right up to and including the Prime Minister himself, have been caught claiming what can only be described as highly dubious travel expenses.

In fact, Tony Abbott has been forced to repay $609 that he claimed to attend the wedding of... Peter Slipper.

Unsurprisingly, Slipper has slammed what he rightly calls “breathtaking” hypocrisy. “What is breathtaking is that I am before a court … despite a number of attempts on my part to resolve the matter administratively,” Slipper told Fairfax journalists. “Yet others are able to write cheques for much more in repayment, and in their cases the matter’s closed and no questions asked.”

Attending weddings appears to be something Coalition parliamentarians rather enjoy. In the last week, we’ve seen revelations emerge that Abbott, Barnaby Joyce, George Brandis and a number of other Coalition MPs have claimed travel expenses for attending the weddings of colleagues, mining magnates and radio shock jocks.

For instance, Brandis and Joyce claimed parliamentary expenses to attend the wedding of radio shock jock and right-wing blogger Michael Smith. You might remember that it was Smith who doggedly pursued Julia Gillard over the so-called AWU affair – a non-scandal that none-the-less dominated front pages for more than a month, despite no credible evidence emerging of any wrong-doing by the former prime minister.

Joyce, Julie Bishop and Theresa Gambaro also attended the lavish Hyderabad wedding of the grand-daughter of Indian coal billionaire Krishna Reddy, who was about to ink a massive coal export deal with Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting. All three MPs claimed travel expenses for their flights back. “My study period in this country was only of one day's duration,” Joyce later wrote, “but it was of great assistance in familiarising myself with Malaysia.”

The revelations have led to renewed interest being paid to the expense claims of the Prime Minister himself. He appears to have made extensive use of his travel entitlements to attend sporting and charity functions. In just the six months to the end of December 2012, Abbott claimed no less than  $435,301 for his parliamentary entitlements. There is no doubt that much of this is legitimate – for instance, travel to Canberra. But some of these claims clearly could be questioned.

According to this list put together by the blogger ImpUte, the list of Abbott’s dubious travel claims is extensive. For instance, in December 2010, Abbott claimed $1,910 for flights plus $171 in Comcar costs to attend the first day of the Boxing Day Ashes test in Melbourne. Abbott has claimed travel expenses to attend the Melbourne Cup, to volunteer in Indigenous communities in Arukun, and for accommodation costs on his annual “Pollie Pedal” charity bike ride. On the face of it, it seems as though the primary purpose of at least some of these claims is not, in fact, parliamentary business.

The Slipper and Thomson affairs were major scandals for the Gillard government. They smashed Labor’s media strategy and detracted from the Gillard government’s attempts to establish a coherent narrative of incumbency. It’s true, of course, that many of Labor’s wounds were self-inflicted. Even so, the constant, personal and vicious attacks on the credibility of the Labor government and the prime minister herself played an important part in the ALP’s eroded standing in the electorate.

What goes around, comes around. In December 2012, while in London, Abbott had this to say about the Craig Thomson affair: “it goes to the judgment of the Prime Minister.” Labor and many in the media might want to make a similar argument about Tony Abbott’s judgment in claiming travel expenses to attend weddings, parties and charity bike rides.

Abbott is discovering that governing is much harder than opposing. In opposition, Abbott would have pounced on an expenses scandal such as this, and relentlessly hammered it to his advantage. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, he is finding that hosing down a scandal is much harder than inciting one.

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This user is a New Matilda supporter. Sooz
Posted Tuesday, October 8, 2013 - 17:02

Right...
The moral fabric of Tony Abbott needs to be checked correctly.

MuchAdo
Posted Tuesday, October 8, 2013 - 22:13

Tony Abbott's moral fabric is cut from the same cloth as the Emperor's new clothes.

This article documents well the issues of Peter Slipper being 'multiple-wedged' by the LNP, especially by Abbott lieutenant Pyne and Abbott mate Brough. 

This user is a New Matilda supporter. DrGideonPolya
Posted Wednesday, October 9, 2013 - 00:34

As a pro-peace, pro-environment, pro-human rights Humanist  scientist I am happy to see the pro-war, anti-environment, human rights-abusing, anti-science, and effective climate change denialist  Coalition being hoist with its own petard in relation to its moralizing over "Parliamentary expenses".

However that said, one is annoyed that again Australian public discussion descends into the absurd over $1,000  in expenses here or there while GIGANTIC ISSUES involving billions and indeed trillions of dollars and Coalition permission for foreign corporations to  rape the pubicly-owned environment are steadfastly ignored.

Thus the Carbon Tax is still  L-A-W Law in Australia but the previous Labor Government and the present Coalition have allowed fossil fuel companies to evade billions of dollars of Carbon Taxes through the gross and  criminal understatement of the amount and valuation of methane fugitive emissions (see Gideon Polya, "Australia's Carbon Tax scandal", MWC News, 23 Novemebr 2012: http://mwcnews.net/focus/analysis/23026-gideonpolya-carbon-tax.html  ).

While the media and politician presstitutes look the other way, it is notable that cities, colleges and church groups around the world are divesting from ecocidal, terracidal fossil fuel corporations that , with neoliberal government permisison, are destroying the Biosphere that is the birthright of all Humanity  for private  profit (for an alphabetical compendium of such decent folk see "Divest from fossil fuels" : https://sites.google.com/site/300orgsite/divest-from-fossil-fuels ).

Rocky
Posted Wednesday, October 9, 2013 - 08:42

Now we know why Coalition politicians are so obsessed with budget surpluses -- they want to spend it all on themselves.

everything old
Posted Wednesday, October 9, 2013 - 13:48

In Abbott's case there is simply no scandal.  In Slipper's and Thompson's cases, there were numerous egregious examples of an alleged intention to defraud.

Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. Accent
Posted Wednesday, October 9, 2013 - 14:10

Am I the only person who is more worried by the acceptance of largesse from Gina and co in the form of free trips on private jets to attend weddings etc?

Surely this is a form of bribery and any politician receiving such favours should declare a conflict of interest and withdraw from any discussion or vote concerning policy areas involving the business person or sector concerned.

That Bishop, Joyce et al feel it is fine to cosy up to mining magnates etc yet maintain a straight face while pushing policy in their favour is far more of a threat to democracy than the fiddling of expense accounts, which of course needs to be exposed and stamped out as well.

jcleeland
Posted Wednesday, October 9, 2013 - 14:19

I love the apologiss coming out, "everything old".

So, in your esteemed opinion, attending the wedding of Sophie Mirabella clearly and unambiguously qualifies as parliamentary business does it. If you're honestly suggesting that Tony Abbott believed that it was an appropriate use of his parliamentary travel allowance, then you yourself are questioning his character (which maybe you are). But if you think Tony Abbott is allowed to consider attending a colleagues wedding is within travel allowance entitlements, but Craig Thomson isn't allowed to believe a call-girl isn't within his work entitlements, or Slipper isn't allowed to think touring wineries isn't within entitlements, then I think it actually goes to your own character instead. Nobody in Australia is under any misapprehension about the breathtaking hypocrisy being displayed by Tony Abbott and his minions at this time (I mean, except of course yourself).

But I guess the facts never get in the way of a one-eyed political partisan.

Ultimately this "scandal" will sink quickly, as it won't be getting continued oxygen from the Murdoch Press, and Fairfax won't be pushing it beyond it's natural life cycle as a story. The days of a massive media corporation running an agenda to depose a government are over until the next Labor Government get elected.

Alison Skene
Posted Wednesday, October 9, 2013 - 15:01

Put a taxpayer-funded trough in front of a politician, and he (or she) will gladly wallow in it.

If leading the country to war on false pretences, or letting your department engage in illegal deals with dictators, or deliberately lying about the behaviour of asylum seekers is not enough to get a government minister sacked, then rorting 'entitlements' certainly won't. 

This scandal will blow over and nothing will change, because politicians of every stripe have a poor grasp of public duty and will always have trouble separating pleasure from business.

atkenos
Posted Wednesday, October 9, 2013 - 16:17

Come on Mr Abbott. Agree to a full audit of all your expenses as todatw we see some $90000 over three years to attend STUNTS

grumpyoldman2
Posted Wednesday, October 9, 2013 - 16:30

Travel for obscure reasons has been the trademark of government in OZ for ages. We have had a Ministry of Finance for the same period but it has never seen fit to set out travel rules and protocols, possibly because it is an area fraught with uncertainty. We their boss, have long been aware of politicians "study tours" and lack of accountability. Surely someone in Finance can be tasked to go and find out how the private sector manages and write a White Paper, then a Green Paper, then we can all go back to sleep.

Jadran
Posted Wednesday, October 9, 2013 - 16:52

Ben

This is an especially dumb commentary.

First there is a world of difference between an expense claim (however "dubious" you may chose to view the purpose), where that claim has been honestly submitted and the sort of dishonest rorting that Slipper is alleged to have perpetrated.  In Slipper's case he is alleged to have deliberatley broken up his wineries visit into a number of different cabcharge vouchers, each charged seperately and to have disguised the locations he visited by using vague terms like "suburb to suburb" on the vouchers.  If you go back you will find that Slipper has been accused of doing these kind of deliberately vague travel claims for years.  If proven this is straight out fraud.

Second it is disappointing that someone presenting as a serious political commentator goes for the sort of cheapjack anti-politician pointscoring you would expect from someone who has no understanding of the way we expect our politicians to work.  Their's a truly 24 hours a day, 7 days a week job.  When Abbott goes on a poly-peddle or Swan goes to a footy grand final it's not about "fun" it's all part of their job, projecting their image and being seen to participate in a public event.  Not convinced?  Well imagine a situation where a senior politican did or said something outrageous in public.  Would anyone cut them slack if their defence was "well I didn't claim any travel allowances to attend so my behaviour at the event was a personal matter and therefore should not matter".  Such an excuse would be laughed away. Populist attacks like this come from people who themselves wouldn't survive 5 minutes under the constant glare that is a life in modern politics.

Nanethan
Posted Wednesday, October 9, 2013 - 19:34

It is disgusting that many of our politicians and even some journalists including those at the ABC, attempt to justify the various travel claims reported recently in the media which can only be described as non-work-related. Any travel claim that is not considered legitimate for a worker in a government supported organisation should not be allowed for government supported politicians. 

The Prime Minister Tony Abbott forgets the fact that Australians pay tax for the government to provide services in the sectors of health, basic education and infrastructure, and not for Tony Abbott to participate in various sports activities. He must note that all other Australians spend their own hard-earned money (without a tax rebate) to train in their sports of interest. If they happen to donate to an eligible charity, they claim a tax rebate. If they donate their time in such a venture, it is privately funded. Such expenses are not claimed from their employers. It is an insult to the intelligence of the working public, to assert that these and other activities are in any way work related (while they may or may not be commendable in their own right) or that they are necessary for “networking” purposes. Similarly, time apportioned for work should not be spent attending weddings, and if it is, the costs should be clearly demarcated and claimed. It is not rocket science. What is reasonable and allowable for the common Australian should be the guide for politicians. Mr Xenophon is right: transparency and clear guidelines will be the key to stopping this flagrant waste. Shame on the rest of them.

grumpyoldman2
Posted Thursday, October 10, 2013 - 10:02

Agree with you Jadran, Ben had a poor News week. Wonder if he would care to comment upon whether Peter the Plonker, Redlands, back charged his wine, travel and accommodation expenses when entertaining his neighbour in his office. In the office, so legit? His Branch think it was.

fightmumma
Posted Thursday, October 10, 2013 - 14:29

i've been paying half an ear to this topic and am struck by the persistent theme amongst the politicians and abbott-favouring political/social commentaries that these people feel and deserve "entitlement" to public funds of this sort...as someone relying on centrelink support currently, i sense a hint of hypocracy that the needy are NOT entitled and should have to beg, grovel and be ashamed and have others shame them, for welfare, while our politicians enjoy an above-scrutiny status to dip in to public funds for the most frivolous and ridiculous of activities with the most thinly connected links to their public duties.  That fact that they are not apologetic but feel entitled is highly disturbing, the fact that the MSM is not that upset by this is further disturbing, the widespread, deeply embedded attitudes they have towards this money...while having such negative assumptions and attitudes towards people on welfare is utterly disgusting!

ben_eltham
Posted Thursday, October 10, 2013 - 19:37

I'm meant to be on holidays but hey! my plane is delayed ... so waht better time to discuss travel entitlements, yeah?

Now it just so happens that I'm on my way to Warsaw to see my partner's short film at the Warsaw International Filmn Festival. I don't think any of you will be surprised to hear that we're paying for our own airfares and accomodation.

It's an interesting comparison, what an average citizen like myself can get our employers to pay for, and what politicians can.

Now, as I said in the article, there is clearly much in the way of political travel that is completely legitimate. I have no problem with Tony Abott getting free flights to and from Canberra, and indeed a reasonable amount of travel as Opposition Leader.

I think we're seeing some pretty ambitious ambit claims being made, however, that somehow politicians are *always* on the job and that literally every time they travel they're doing it for the purposes of representing voters. Pretty much carte blanche, in other words.

a truly 24 hours a day, 7 days a week job

as our commenter puts it. In which case I guess it's time for the Commonwealth to start paying for Tony Abbott's mortgage etc etc

As to the argument that drawing attention to political entitlements is somehow a populist attack, "cheapjack anti-politician pointscoring", well, I plead guilty. That's exactly what a close examination of political entitlements leads to. There's a reason for that. Most ordinary voters don't like this sort of thing. 

Anyway looks like it's time to board. I'm off to Eastern Europe for a few weeks. What a shame I can't call it a "study tour" and get taxpayers to cough up for my enlightenment!

 

Dorabull62
Posted Thursday, October 10, 2013 - 21:15

Pardon my ignorance, but I thought that volunteering was basically putting energy into something without expecting a reward.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. Rockjaw
Posted Friday, October 11, 2013 - 17:41

Good an ya Ben!!!

 

RossC
Posted Sunday, October 13, 2013 - 16:42

Yeah, what a bunch of greedy, self-interested, hypocritical pricks these dudes and dudettes have been/are.

And what poor judgement - Claiming expenses for attending Sophie Mirabella's wedding is bad enough, and completely unjustifiable. But who, with any taste, good judgement, or humanity whatsoever, would even want to attend that miserable cow's wedding in the first place? Have they no shame? 

And couldn't Tony imagine what might eventuate as he happily charged his many weekend sporting dalliances up to the taxpayer? No - he was just enjoying the public's largesse. The Tax Office would step in to investigate any other Australian suspected of rorting the public purse. But apparently politicians are a breed apart? Or are they? What does the Tax Office have to say on the matter?

Tony justifying his many dodgy claims on the grounds that all the events in question were "in marginal electorates" or whatever just wouldnt wash as an argument from another public servant to the Tax Office. And doing so while continuing implicit support for the public flogging of Slipper for practically identical behaviour is just treating the voters of this country like complete idiots. Whilst this is possibly true of significant sectors of the population that voted for Tony and somehow think that all of this is OK, and is certainly true for some of his cult-worshipping apologists like Gerard Henderson, what about the rest of us? What did we do so wrong that has deserved all this?

It's pathetic. Lift your game guys.

Rant over.

Ant..
Posted Tuesday, October 15, 2013 - 16:20

When it looks like a rat, makes sounds like a rat, has the eyes of a rat, behaves like a rat, known to associate with rats, and appears to be well versed with rat cunning its pretty safe to say its a rat.

 

Marc Wigan
Posted Saturday, October 19, 2013 - 15:06

My concern is that the price of Abbotts feral dedication to power at any cost (to the community and the common weal) has seriously reduced the credibility of the political system that he now heads. While arguments can be made at the margin on the issues rasied, the absolutely unquestionable outcome is that the result has been a further drop in the belief that there is an even handed credible and ethical basis for the exercise of this power.

Whatever standpoint one takes, this is the price we as the voters pay (not Abbott of course, who can now happily hide away his own acountabilites by exercise of that power)

This further  incremental loss of credibility of the office of Prome Minister is the cost of not setting these issues in a credible accoutable and transparent manner. Of course it might still happen..... but...

If it is not done, the primary vote of the major parties will probably take yet another further nosedive at the next election.

As a community we simply cannot afford this.