New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia is credited with making the first political reference to the concept of a free lunch.
He actually said “E finita la cuccagna!”, meaning “The abundance is finished”. Liberally translated, it was taken to mean “No more free lunch” at a time of abundant graft and corruption.
The term “free lunch” has its origins in the 19th-century US, where bars enticed customers with an offer of a free feed, provided they bought at least one drink.
The feed – often ham, cheese and crackers – was high in salt and proffered for obvious reasons.
In more recent times, “there ain’t no such thing as free lunch” has become a popular phrase for free-market economists to explain, in simpler terms, that if one individual or group gets something at no cost, somebody else ends up paying for it.
And if there appears to be no direct cost to any single individual, there’s a social cost.
Politically, the free lunch comes in many forms: a ticket to the cricket, tennis, football, opera or a Bruce Springsteen concert; an upgrade to business class; a trinket.
Or a bottle of wine.
Barry O’Farrell’s spectacular fall from grace this week, for a “massive memory fail” about the $3000 bottle of vintage Grange he received after being elected NSW premier in 2011, was a reminder how the little things can trip up even a well-regarded politician.
Which explains why many federal MPs, from the prime minister down, are very specific about listing on parliament’s pecuniary interests register every little thing they’re given by way of a free lunch.
Adam Graycar, director of the Transnational Research Institute on Corruption at the Australian National University, believes our politicians are required to meet high benchmarks.
“What passes as unacceptable conduct in Australia would barely raise an eyebrow in some countries in Africa or South America,” he says.
Australia, like other western democracies, worked very strictly on the assumption that the reward that public officials get was their salary.
“Any reward beyond that could be a breach of the trust that is held in that office.”
Which is why “any gift” should be declared transparently, Graycar argues.
But public officials should know where one draws the line between a routine transaction over a coffee or a beer, and a gift that could influence an outcome.
One key issue was to understand whether there is any quid pro quo.
Some politicians, especially those with aspirations of high office, take no risks when it comes to gifts.
Labor leader Bill Shorten listed a gifted family ticket to Melbourne’s Carols by Candlelight in December.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott registered, among other gifts, a framed and signed indigenous Wallabies jersey given to him by the Australian Rugby Union, an honorary membership of the prestigious Australian Golf Club and the rights that came with being No.1 ticket-holder at the Manly Sea Eagles.
Senior Labor MP Anthony Albanese noted Woolworths sent him a hamper before Christmas.
A check of the federal register shows 66 out of 150 MPs have not updated their listings since they were first required to lodge them after the 2013 election.
Among them is a number of ministers and Labor front benchers.
John Uhr, an expert in political ethics, finds it hard to believe so many federal MPs have nothing to add, putting it down to the absence of a hung parliament which heightened the focus of conduct and ethics between 2010 and 2013.
“I suspect a lot of the people who aren’t registering might be taking into account the micro-police aren’t there to push the levers any more so let’s be a little slow and casual about it,” he says.
Unlike NSW, there is no federal anti-corruption body to enforce ethical behaviour and conflicts of interest.
Nor is there any honest third-party examination or auditing process forcing MPs to do a bit better in their due diligence obligations, Uhr says.
So we take politicians at their word. And when they slip-up by neglecting to register a gift, there is allowance to rectify the “oversight”.
O’Farrell learned the hard way this week that pleading genuine ignorance, while carrying reputational consequences, is better than a black-and-white denial.
Graycar says a “very, very small” number of politicians in Australia have been found to be corrupt.
However, some have made bad decisions, some have made stupid decisions, some have been less than transparent.
And where there is a breach of integrity, there may not necessarily be corruption, but sometimes ignorance, stupidity, or bad judgment.
“What we really want from our politicians is integrity and good judgment,” Graycar says.