Friday, October 25, 2013

Money For Old Rope.

I've been watching the debate, for want of a better word, on MPs entitlements for some time now and I'm appalled by the sloppy thinking of commentators and journalists on the matter, all waffling incoherently about what is and isn't reasonable. MPs meanwhile have been predictably talking about 'grey areas' and the difficulty of deciding what is and isn't a rort or a ripoff. It's truly depressing to see the half-assed reporting on this issue, which is at heart a matter of informing both the public and politicians about the limits of naked self-interest and the underlying principles that need to be applied. So, for all those journalists too lazy or stupid to work it out for themselves here's how it works:

Members of Parliament are employed to do two things: represent their constituents in Parliament and consult with their constituents on policies and anything else their constituents want to be consulted about. That's it. That's the job. And anything in the way of expenses incurred in doing either or both of those two things is entirely legitimate and should be reimbursed.

There's a second class of activities, related to the first, where expenses should be covered. That's any activity that helps inform the MP about policy questions or solutions that can be applied to their work in Parliament. This includes attending boring infrastructure conferences, meeting with academics, experts and similar drones, talking to community leaders and travelling to see how social, economic and environmental problems have been solved in other places.

So, travelling to Germany to see how solar power is being used to fundamentally change how green power can save the environment and change the energy industry into a more democratic model is expensive but entirely appropriate. Travelling to a wedding because there will be useful political contacts is not. Not ever. NEVER.

Travelling to remote parts of Australia to inform the MP on policy performance in Aboriginal communities is entirely appropriate. Travelling to talk to industry lobbyists is not. If an industry lobbyist wants to talk to a politician or Minister then that lobbyist should do the travelling and cover his own costs. If that lobbyist offers to cover the MPs costs to travel to meet the lobbyist, or for any other purpose, that offer must be rejected. It is 100% NOT ok for any lobbyist, or private citizen to fund MP's travel or expenses. No matter how trivial the cost it puts the MP in that citizen or lobbyist's debt, leading to a conflict of interest.

So travelling to the wedding of any private citizen is not, under any circumstances, something the public purse should pay for. If there are rich and influential people at the wedding that the MP may talk to then it is even more inappropriate. The rich have enough influence as it is. Taking their money and hospitality is absolutely NOT ok. Going to the Melbourne Cup is fine. Accepting free tickets to it is NOT ok. Having the public purse pay for you and your spouse's travel and accommodation is NOT ok.
The same principle applies to ANY sporting event, whether the MP is going as a spectator or a competitor. There is no public interest in any MP, including the Prime Minister, being in a triathlon. It isn't 'engaging with the community', it's a personal activity with political payoffs for the MP, or PM's image. It's a professional politician advertising his own brand, not to mention any other brands he happens to be wearing. The only possible exception to this is the Sports Minister, and that only applies to attending, not taking part.

Which brings us to our second principle. The distinction to be drawn here is the difference between political work as an MP, and party political work as a professional politician. If an MP, or PM, is working in parliament, or consulting with his electorate, or meeting with experts or visiting places where policies are being implemented, then it's work for the public good and can be paid for by the public purse. If he is doing political work for his party, making public appearances to get elected, attending weddings where rich campaign donors will be, or attending political party meetings, conferences or rallies he is doing party politics and this is his and his parties responsibility. And he or his party must pay for his expenses. 

There is no grey area here. 

The party pays, not the public.

This is always the case. 


Politicians will always fudge the question here. Attending a short 'work' meeting to cover a trip that's 90% private business is a typical and obvious example. And politicians will generally band together to support such cheap and shoddy conduct. It's our job, and the job of journalists, to pull them up short and say no, not good enough. Get used to it. It's part of the $$ price of democracy: eternal vigilance over the not so petty amounts of travel and accommodation expenses that a politician, or former politician will gladly rack up and charge to the public purse.

The only further issue here is the question of family and politics. This is a huge country. If you are a Minister from WA, for example, spending weeks at a time in Canberra and away from family strains relationships. So it's reasonable that we cover SOME of the costs of spouses and children's travel. Bringing family to stay in Canberra can be justified. Taking extended holidays  overseas and attending cultural and sporting events on the public dime is stretching the point beyond the friendship.

If a politician claims it's all too confusing and complicated it's an admission that they aren't up to the challenge of being a politician, dealing with complex, messy questions of the nation's politics, economy and future. They should quit, get out, find another employer. We need people who do understand these principles and will commit to following them.

Rant over.


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