With traditional door knocking and public campaigning events off the cards due to the coronavirus, federal politicians are spending big on “virtual town hall” events and video equipment to connect with constituents.
Nine federal MPs across both major parties spent a total of $100,000 on virtual or telephone meetings between March and June this year, according to the latest round of political expenditure documents released by the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority (IPEA).
Similar to a normal town hall gathering, the events allow voters to listen to their local member and ask questions via phone or video link.
First-term Liberal MP Katie Allen claimed $24,131 for three events over March and April. One such event was by telephone while the other two were held virtually – including one with health minister Greg Hunt.
Her office said they were “quite different to Zoom meetings”, with “many thousands” of people joining.
A spokesperson for the Member for Higgins said to maintain a subscription for Zoom to support a similar number of people would cost many thousands of dollars more per month.
Another new Liberal MP, Vince Connelly of WA’s seat of Stirling, held a virtual town hall with employment minister Michaelia Cash on May 21, at a cost of $13,904.
He said the concept was valuable and thousands tuned in.
“In the era of COVID-19, the way we communicate with one another has changed drastically. I am willing to embrace new and different means of communicating in the task of representing all 102,000 voters in Stirling,” he told The New Daily, saying constituents were able to ask questions about COVID and government assistance.
“Zoom is not considered appropriate for this type of event, for both security and capacity reasons.”
Labor MP, Dr Andrew Leigh, held his own telephone-event on May 26.
He said the cost of these events was due to them requiring a complex telephone system to first place ‘robocalls’ to constituents, notifying them of the meeting, then to handle the logistics of conducting the event.
“On the night, we ring everyone again and ask them to stay on the line for the event. Not surprisingly, most people hung up,” Dr Leigh joked to The New Daily.
“But a few thousand stayed on … most people said it was interesting, that they’d never come along to a town hall before. I thought they’d be diehard political tragics, but I think [virtual town halls] tap into a bunch of people who wouldn’t come along to one, people who are otherwise not engaged.”
Dr Leigh said he hoped the technology – for which he billed $14,862 – would get cheaper in future, adding “there was no other way I could have spoken to so many people in the midst of a pandemic.”
Nationals MP George Christensen, who claimed $14,275 for two virtual events – one featuring deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack – said his constituents “greatly appreciated” the chance to “engage directly with their MPs”.
“There was a very strong take-up of the call and it went for over an hour,” he told The New Daily.
Other federal MPs including Gladys Liu, Bill Shorten, Josh Wilson, Jason Wood and Paul Fletcher also claimed virtual town hall expenses.
Virtual town hall events aren’t the only innovation adopted by MPs, with others spending on video equipment to reach constituents online.
Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie purchased more than $20,000 in audio and video equipment including two digital cameras and lenses, a GoPro action camera, microphones, gimbal stabilisers, and other accessories like tripods, flashes, and two Glowpro Ring Lights.
A spokesperson for Senator Lambie’s office told The New Daily she had previously worked on “a dinky little webcam” and hadn’t bought new office camera gear for years.
“We realised quickly that, without being able to get out and about, we’d need to work more on social media,” the spokesperson said.
“Jacqui has two staffed offices in Canberra and Burnie, and she made the call that it would be more expensive to transport a camera setup from Tasmania to the ACT, 15 or 20 times a year, for the next five years, along with insuring it every time, than it would be to just set up a little camera unit in both offices.”
“While every major party can pool their resources and share a camera, mic, light or tripod, Jacqui has to source everything herself.”
Ms Lambie’s office noted her total expenses for the period, around $66,000, were far lower than the average claimed by major party politicians.
Numerous other MPs also claimed expensive iPhones, iPads, camera gear, lighting and even teleprompters.
Elsewhere in the disclosures, it was revealed at least half a dozen federal politicians billed the public for former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s explosive memoirs.
A Bigger Picture was recorded on at least seven forms, including from Kristina Keneally, Julian Hill, Kimberley Kitching, Peta Murphy, and Dave Sharma – the current MP for Mr Turnbull’s old seat of Wentworth.
LNP member Warren Entsch bought four copies, while Llew O’Brien bought two. Mr O’Brien, Ms Murphy and Ms Kitching all billed their copies of the book on April 20 – the very first day it was released.
Mr Sharma also billed a copy of ‘Bad Egg: How to Fix Super’, written by his Liberal Senate colleague Andrew Bragg.