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.