OPINION: Parliament's wasted "expenses” opportunity

FORMER Fisher MP, Peter Slipper's example of excessive use of parliamentary expenses was an opportunity missed to clean up a mess that has now claimed Health Minister Sussan Ley. Photo: Brett Wortman / Sunshine Coast Daily
FORMER Fisher MP, Peter Slipper's example of excessive use of parliamentary expenses was an opportunity missed to clean up a mess that has now claimed Health Minister Sussan Ley. Photo: Brett Wortman / Sunshine Coast Daily Brett Wortman

THE Turnbull Government would not have lost a Minister and now be facing fresh issues regarding the use of parliamentary entitlements if the federal parliament had in 2011, when asked, acted to thoroughly examine the spending of former Fisher MP Peter Slipper.

The Sunshine Coast, in a petition signed by 2700 people and presented in July, 2011, asked the Parliament to do just that but despite mounting examples of Mr Slipper's willingness to push the boundaries of entitlement guidelines, political expediency meant nothing happened.

Instead there have since been innumerable examples of politicians dipping too deep, a tendency that ended Bronwyn Bishop's career and which now threatens that of former Health Minister Sussan Ley, forced to stand down over expense claims, the use of which for official business had coincided with her purchase of a Gold Coast investment property.

Federal Fairfax MP Ted O'Brien says Ms Ley's absence would not impact his and Fisher MP Andrew Wallace's attempts to win the additional 15 places necessary to adequately fund a medical school at the Sunshine Coast University Hospital.

Maybe not, but it can't have helped.

Certainly Mr Slipper's latest Tweets haven't helped progress debate on the moral equivalence of a government that harasses social welfare recipients but can't curb the doubtful dipping of its parliamentarians.

"Surely if Australia is a democracy, everyone should be given equivalence of treatment," is the former Coast MP's Twitter take on the Sussan Ley affair.

It is uncertain whether Mr Slipper wants the former Health Minister slapped over the knuckles with a feather, as ultimately occurred in his case, or is an impassioned plea for her to be made Speaker.

That is certainly what happened in 2011 when a full appreciation of the extent of his use of public money was exposed.

The 2011 Sunshine Coast petition, organised by the Sunshine Coast Daily and presented to Parliament by former Fairfax MP Alex Somlyay, asked for a complete audit of expenses claimed by Mr Slipper during the previous decade, overseen by the National Audit Office with a view to it framing recommendations that may produce expenditure guidelines more in line with community expectations.

It further sought that expenditure provisions be tightened to require all Members to give detail of the parliamentary or electoral business that led to an expense being incurred.

While still a backbencher, Mr Slipper spent $318,267.30 of taxpayers' money during the six months to December 31, 2010 compared with the $233,500.57 spent by then Climate Change Minister Greg Combet.

The spending also outstripped senior members of his own party including Malcolm Turnbull (210,860.06), Joe Hockey ($250,835.66) and Scott Morrison ($237,853.78).

It was found that in July alone of that year, while Parliament was in recess, his bill for ground and air travel reached $23,000.

His only explanation was a declaration it was for parliamentary or electoral business, refusing repeatedly to open his diary to scrutiny.

The Labor Government of the time, more intent on shoring up its slim majority, didn't seize the excess as a catalyst for change, instead promoting Mr Slipper to Deputy Speaker and ultimately Speaker of the House.

John Murphy, the former Labor Member for Reid, and then chair of the House of Representative petitions committee, rejected a Coalition invitation to stand against Mr Slipper for the job.

Michael Danby, Labor's Member for Melbourne Ports, in seconding his party's nomination of Mr Slipper as Speaker chose to criticise this newspaper's attempts to hold the Member for Fisher to account for the $57,000 he spent on taxis, cars and limos, an amount that exceeded the annual $52,000 household income of his electorate.

Mr Slipper was eventually cleared on appeal after being convicted on charges relating to the altering of Cabcharge vouchers to represent trips around Canberra, to which he was entitled, to disguise days out at wineries outside the ACT.

In her Golden Globes lifetime achievement award acceptance speech this week actor Meryl Streep took aim at US President-elect Donald Trump making the point the behaviour of senior public officials was important because how they act "gives permission for other people to do the same thing".

And there lies the danger in the double standards that exist when those in power grant themselves privilege and entitlements they fight to withhold from others.

The message is a clear one - elbows up and grab what you can.

Is it any wonder so many large Australian companies can find reasons not to pay tax and that voters are deserting major political parties even when experience tells them the alternative rarely delivers any better.

Topics:  editors picks entitlements expenses malcolm turnbull michael danby peter slipper petition speaker sussan ley

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