In an interview published just after his 90th birthday last year, celebrated sociologist Zygmunt Bauman pointed to a crisis in democracy because of a collapse of trust and “the belief that our leaders are not just corrupt or stupid, but inept”.
Bauman died on Monday in Leeds, the British town he’d made his home since the 1970s. Wherever he may be now, he’s possibly weighing up the dubious expenses of numerous Australian politicians and muttering: “I told you so.”
While it probably isn’t corrupt, the behaviour of Sussan Ley, Julie Bishop, Bronwyn Bishop, Mathias Cormann and others plundering the public purse is certainly stupid and has so eroded public trust in our pollies that we are facing not just a crisis in the conduct of the Turnbull government, but democracy itself.
And that’s an unacceptable and non-refundable expense. It’s how voter backlashes, like that which recently delivered a Trump presidency, are born.
It isn’t only the conservative side of politics at the trough, either. As one Labor politician once observed about such conduct: “It happens on both sides, but the Libs just seem to be so much better at it.”
As the ABC reported this week, federal politicians claimed almost $49 million in expenses over the first half of 2016 and more than $55 million in the six months before that.
Julie Bishop claimed the largest amount between January 1 and June 30 last year – a total of $839,810 – with the majority spent on overseas travel undertaken as Foreign Minister. But as we all know now, she managed a day out at the Portsea polo on us too, partner in tow.
Of course, the bulk of the claims by MPs were no doubt justified, but it’s now obvious that a significant minority weren’t.
Why do our elected representatives do it? I can only guess that their jobs are so relentless and, at times, thankless, that they rationalise their appalling behaviour as, “I deserve it”.
But they don’t, actually. Politicians, especially ministers, are well paid and the perks are pretty damn good. Who else gets free AFL grand final tickets? Cormann and a couple of other senators did in 2013 and then charged taxpayers for taking up the largesse.
Seriously, if you want to make money, don’t go into public service, go into the gambling industry or the banking sector or set yourselves up as consultants to the Chinese. (Which, come to think of it, is where many former pollies end up anyway.)
Acting Special Minister of State Kelly O’Dwyer has belatedly foreshadowed changes to the parliamentary entitlements system within the next six months. Six months? Could they move any slower?
She says what’s needed more than anything is “a clear definition of what official business is … to give the Australian people confidence that their hard-earned taxpayer dollars are respected and they can have confidence in the system”.
If only it were that easy. What really needs to change is the attitude and ethical framework politicians adopt when they enter parliament.
Independent Senator Nick Xenophon envisaged all this 18 months ago when he introduced legislation to overhaul the system by making it more transparent, better policed and subject to higher penalties to deter MPs and senators who break the rules.
It all made perfectly good sense. So, of course, it was knocked back. Senator Xenophon plans to reintroduce the legislation in the next parliamentary session, which begins next month. Surely he’ll succeed this time. Then again …
Thirty years ago, when he was running Victoria, then Premier John Cain used to have two piles of ‘out’ mail on his desk. The bigger pile consisted of official correspondence; the smaller pile those letters he deemed personal. On top of that pile he would leave the coins needed for staff to buy the necessary stamps.
Contrast that with the behaviours of recent times – first-class charters, New Year’s Eve soirees with donor friends, front-row seats at blue-chip events. And all on us, the taxpayer.
No doubt there’ll be protestations and justifications in each case, but ultimately it comes down to this: our MPs and senators need to be reminded it’s public service, not self-service.
Bruce Guthrie is co-founder and editorial director of The New Daily. He is a former editor-in-chief of The Age and the Herald Sun.