We're All In This Together: How Labor Came To The Choppergate Party

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Joe Hockey once described Australia as a nation of “lifters not leaners”. Oh how I’d love to get my hands on the forms he submits to claim his travel ‘entitlements’… and I use the term ‘entitlements’ ironically.

Speaking of which, if you’re waiting for the Abbott Government to ‘do the right thing’ and remove parliamentary speaker Bronwyn Bishop for trying to fleece Australian taxpayers $5,000 for a chartered helicopter flight to a party fundraiser, don’t hold your breath.

As inconceivable as it might seem, the Prime Minister is unlikely to dump Bishop. She’s a close political ally, and Tony Abbott needs all the allies he can get.

Another thing that’s not going to happen is the emergence of the literal ‘smoking gun’ – the document Bishop signed which apparently claimed that her chartered trip was for parliamentary business, as opposed to private (party) business.

Calls for its release reached fever pitch last week, driven by the Labor Party and in particular Tony Burke, who claimed that if the documents showed Bishop described the trip as ‘official business’, then her head must roll.

Ordinarily, it would have sparked furious Freedom of Information applications from political staffers and journalists alike. But that would have been a fruitless exercise, a fact well known to Tony Burke, which I’ll explain in a minute.

In any event, Bishop outed herself a few days later during a Sydney press conference. She admitted that she had committed an ‘error of judgement’… that is, obviously, she signed a parliamentary allowance claim to which she wasn’t entitled.

But the form Bishop signed still holds some interest. It will show the level of Bishop’s ‘error of judgement’ based on how many times she ignored its repeated warnings that charter travel is ONLY for “official business”.

Sadly, it remains buried somewhere in the bureaucratic wilderness, and is unlikely to ever emerge. For that, you can thank the Australian Labor Party.

In 2013, the Gillard government’s Attorney General Mark Dreyfus drew up legislation which ensured that government departments which provide services directly to the parliament are no longer subject to the Freedom of Information Act. That obviously includes the Department of the House of Representatives, which processes the travel claims of politicians.

In other words, if politicians diddle their ‘entitlements’, you – the taxpayer – are not entitled to access the documents that prove it.

The legislation was a response to a scoop from Fairfax Media in June 2013. After the Sunshine Coast Daily was refused an FOI application*, The Herald decided to test the FOI legislation, and found a loophole. It got its hands on the spending of former speaker Peter Slipper’s office.

Traditionally, parliamentary services had always been exempt from FOI, but a change in laws in 1999 left a hole. The Herald tried to tear it open, but had their FOI application rejected. They appealed to the Information Commissioner, Professor John McMillan, who presides over all things FOI.

McMillan ruled in Fairfax’s favour, and hence we found out this juicy nugget: “Mr Slipper's new coat and tails cost taxpayers $1,248, while his total travel bill in his first six months as speaker was more than $18,000. He had also spent more than $8500 on catering.”

In hindsight, Slipper was quite the miser compared to his eventual successor – Bishop’s tally for 2014 was $389,139.25 in travel expenses alone, and just over $800,000 to run her office.

In any case, Labor – and the Coalition, despite their hatred of Slipper – were having none of it. Dreyfus hastily prepared a piece of legislation – one page in length – which closed the loophole.

You might remember Dreyfus from such parliamentary scandals as ‘I billed the Australian taxpayers $466 for two nights accommodation in Perisher for a family ski holiday’. 

His bill was rushed through parliament with the support of the Coalition, despite the fact a review on the issue, commissioned by the previous Attorney General, Nicola Roxon, had yet to deliver its final report.

Notably, that report – and the parliamentary departments themselves – recommended against a blanket FOI exemption. They got one anyway.

At the time, Labor’s Anthony Albanese was quoted in the Herald article defending the indecent haste with which the legislation was pushed through. He described it as "an interim measure" before the review's completion. No prizes for guessing whether the exemptions remain in place today.

And of course, you may remember Albanese from such expenses scandals as ‘I charged taxpayers to get to a couple of NRL games’. ‘And then I charged taxpayers to go to the AFL grand final. And the Australian tennis Open.’

That was roughly around the time when it emerged that Tony Abbott had charged taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars to attend a host of sporting events, along with more than $9,000 for travel he claimed while on a private book tour. Plus all the travel claims he made when he was ‘volunteering’ in remote Aboriginal communities.

It was also around the time when it emerged Abbott and others had charged taxpayers to attend private weddings, including those of ousted Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella and, believe it or not, Peter Slipper.

Also quoted in the Fairfax story was Bronwyn Bishop who defended the closing of the loophole by complaining that a parliamentary librarian had been placed in a "very difficult position" after the Information Commissioner’s ruling that the service was subject to FOI.

Now here’s the rub.

Unlike Slipper, who was prosecuted – unsuccessfully in the end – for trying to steal less than $1,000 in cab fares to tour wineries just outside of Canberra, Bishop does not have to stare down the Australian Federal Police.

Instead, her matter is being investigated by the Department of Finance, led by bureaucrat Jane Halton, who you might remember from such scandals as John Howard’s ‘Children Overboard’ affair’.

As for the Information Commissioner, who ruled that Fairfax’s FOI application on Slipper’s expenses was valid, you won’t remember him in a few years.

Professor McMillan’s position was abolished by the Abbott Government last year, in their very first budget.

If the leaners of our federal parliament worked at hard as being lifters as they do at ensuring no-one finds out how much they lean, just imagine how high they might soar?

* The original article did not acknowledge Sunshine Coast Daily's role. The story has been amended.

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