During my stint working for Julia Gillard, the staff lived in a constant state of mild terror about news stories relating to repairing The Lodge.
The Lodge didn’t need renovations because the PM and her mates had smashed the place up one night, sinking Bolly by the bucketful and throwing televisions out the windows. (Though perhaps it would have been better that way – it might have helped, the way Kevin Rudd’s trip to Scores helped him.)
It needed repairs because it was 80 years old and had been lived in almost constantly during that period. And it contained asbestos which needed to be removed. Eminently defensible items, you’d think.
But still we feared the stories that would unmask this indulgence – millions of dollars! – of the Prime Minister. Even though it had been recommended, and we really couldn’t delay it much longer, for very good safety reasons.
Now I admit those fears may have been exaggerated by the state of siege we had been living in – but if that was the case then what about the current PM? I’m sure Tony Abbott really does prefer staying at the Australian Federal Police college while he’s in Canberra, but I’m equally certain the reason is partly political: it’s a better look than forking out thousands of taxpayer dollars in rent each week for some palatial mansion while he’s waiting for repairs at The Lodge to be completed.
My point being: we are slightly obsessed in this country with the notion that our politicians have spent just a little bit more than they should have.
On one hand that’s reasonable – politicians have a responsibility to taxpayers. And certainly they should not take their jobs for granted, or abuse the system.
But politicians also do large, complex jobs, and a bit of extra money to help them do those jobs better, to make their lives a little smoother – or live asbestos-free – wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.
I have a related lack of concern about politicians’ salaries: we want these people to be good, we want them to work hard, why should we be afraid of paying them well, and attracting the best we can?
That is a very long way of saying that when the first stories about Bronwyn Bishop’s expensive trip overseas to campaign for the position of President of the Inter-Parliamentary Union broke this week I was uninterested – because for every reasonable complaint there are usually about 10 “we know we can provoke outrage with this headline” stories.
But then, suddenly, it got interesting. First it turned out Ms Bishop had taken a $5000 chopper flight to get from Melbourne to Geelong to attend a Liberal Party event last year. And who doesn’t love a good helicopter story?
Then Joe Hockey got tough, admitting that “instinctively” the chopper didn’t meet the “sniff test”: “Well, it’s not a good look. I think the Speaker needs to explain the matter.”
There are three reasons those facts made it interesting, apart from the helicopter.
The first is a reminder of why it will be hard to ever break the national obsession with pollies’ expenses. (Actually, this is about the helicopter too.) The reality is that our politicians must not only do the right thing but be seen to do the right thing.
Perhaps Ms Bishop’s helitrip was within the rules (though this is looking increasingly unlikely).
But the slightest indication of luxuries being flaunted, and my argument above – that we shouldn’t be too concerned about politicians’ expenses – collapses in a pool of outrage. When that flaunting comes from a blatant disregard for rules then that outrage is justified.
The second was the difficult position in which Mr Hockey found himself. It is significant for the Treasurer to criticise the Speaker. But Mr Hockey has realised in recent times – after his “get a good job that pays good money” comments and the cigar and the “poor people don’t drive cars” palaver and so forth – that he is vulnerable to the perception of coming from privilege. So he distanced himself from Ms Bishop.
Whether or not Mr Hockey’s colleagues approve, it was crucial for him that he did that. It was the right call. Mr Hockey showed some of the political touch that has been absent in recent times.
Interestingly, he also made clear that the money that people sometimes associate with him was in fact his wife’s – a point he made graciously, in apparent acknowledgment of this point from Annabel Crabb. He sounded like the good bloke many people remember him being.
The final point of interest is that the office of Speaker isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Traditionally it has been seen as the final jewel in the career of an MP. It also comes with a large salary.
But the role is an incredibly difficult one. The Speaker is, basically, appointed by one side of politics (technically the position is elected), and is then supposed to be independent.
Almost inevitably, Speakers are less independent than they are supposed to be, which then attracts criticism. The position can also attract extra attention, and therefore controversy – as was the case for Ms Bishop, Peter Slipper, and Leo McLeay back in 1993.
Of course, Ms Bishop has made herself a figure of fun in the current parliament by being about as partial as it is possible to be. A record 400 MPs have been ejected from parliament on her watch – 393 of them from Labor. So when an opportunity arose to damage her, of course Labor leapt on it.
Ms Bishop did the right thing and agreed to pay back the $5000. This will probably be the last we hear of it. But don’t worry, there will be many more expenses yarns down the track.
Prepare your outrage.
Sean Kelly was an adviser to Kevin Rudd from 2009 then to Julia Gillard from 2010. He is on twitter @mrseankelly