Taxpayers are forking out more than $1.1 million a year on Canberra accommodation costs claimed by 63 politicians who already own homes in the nation’s capital, The New Daily can reveal.
The generous perk – enjoyed by the Deputy Prime Minister, Deputy Opposition Leader, cabinet ministers and even first-term MPs – is well known but the full cost to taxpayers had not been disclosed.
In response to The New Daily‘s investigation, one MP called for an end to the “rort”, which is within parliamentary rules, saying it was “one of the many reasons the public despises politicians”.
The New Daily found 63 politicians and their spouses owned property in the ACT in the 2016-17 financial year. These politicians claimed $1,151,369 worth of Canberra travel allowances over the period.
The figure is likely to increase by the end of the 2017-18 financial year, after the number of politicians owning Canberra property increased to 65, with some having only purchased their homes midway through the previous financial year.
Some parliamentarians listed their properties as an “investment”, while 40 politicians confirmed the homes were a “residence”, “residential” or work-related accommodation, according to pecuniary interest documents.
Beneficiaries included Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, Attorney-General Christian Porter, Jobs and Innovation Minister Michaelia Cash, deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek, Labor’s Senate leader Penny Wong and Labor’s infrastructure spokesman Anthony Albanese.
Senator Cash, who lists a residence in Turner, claimed 138 nights of travel allowance over the 12-month period – at a cost to the taxpayer of $38,040.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion, whose property is also in Turner, claimed $37,203 for 135 nights in Canberra.
Though some politicians would not stay in properties listed as an investment, it is understood many do, often sharing with parliamentary colleagues.
Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, who declares a Kingston investment property owned by his wife, claimed $18,993 in travel allowance in 2016-17, then as small business minister. The office of Mr McCormack, who once compared the perk to penalty rates received by workers, confirmed he stays in the home.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, who declared an investment property in Kingston, claimed $22,599 in Canberra travel allowance. His office did not respond to questions on whether he stays in this property.
Labor frontbencher Brendan O’Connor, who claimed $24,000 in travel allowance, has not stayed in the two Canberra investment properties he has owned, his office said.
Senator Rachel Siewert, the only Greens politician to own Canberra property, no longer accepts the full Canberra travel allowance. Because the allowance can only be claimed in full, a spokeswoman said Senator Siewert claimed fewer days than she actually stayed in Canberra to cover “running the apartment and associated costs from being in Canberra”.
A spokesman for Nationals MP Damien Drum said he shared with fellow National MP Darren Chester in a Kingston unit, saying that he uses travel allowance to repay the debt incurred from taking out the mortgage.
MP calls for an end to ‘rort’
Since the 2016 election, 12 politicians have purchased a Canberra property, according to pecuniary interest records.
Parliamentarians receive $285 per night to stay in Canberra for parliamentary sittings, party meetings, and other electorate or ministerial business – an arrangement overseen by the independent Remuneration Tribunal.
The rate, which was $276 during 2016-17 and $215 about 10 years ago, is designed to cover the expensive costs of staying in a Canberra hotel. The figure now exceeds the weekly sum received by a jobseeker on Newstart, which stands at $270 a week.
In response to The New Daily‘s findings, Tasmanian independent MP Andrew Wilkie called for an end to the “rort”, arguing it was “one of the many reasons the public despises politicians”.
“It’s understandable that some senators and members buy properties in Canberra seeing how they spend so much time there,” Mr Wilkie told The New Daily.
“The problem is when they use their travelling allowance to pay for the arrangement and profit from it, for example, by renting a part of the property or realising a capital gain.
“This could be overcome by any of a range of measures, for instance taxpayers only reimbursing the actual cost of accommodation established by the presentation of a hotel receipt.
“There could also be a tightening of the tax treatment of investment properties subsidised by any employer benefit like in this case.”
MPs and senators are on base salaries of around $200,000 per year, while cabinet ministers rake in nearly $350,000 and those in shadow cabinet make about $240,000.
It has previously been reported that an old tax ruling means politicians can also claim tax deductions on second homes, including rent, taxes and maintenance of the building and grounds.
It is understood if these deductions are not claimed, the travel allowance payments are tax-free.
ACT-based MPs and senators cannot claim travelling allowance to stay in Canberra but are entitled to a $90 daily expense allowance to attend parliamentary sittings.
The only ACT politician to accept the money was Liberal senator Zed Seselja, who claimed $1648 in the 2016-17 financial year. He confirmed last month he was no longer claiming the allowance.
In 2016, an independent review of the entitlements system commissioned by then-prime minister Tony Abbott recommended no change to Canberra travel allowance rules.
A spokeswoman for Finance Minister and Special Minister of State Senator Cormann said politicians’ remuneration and work expenses arrangements were “determined by the independent Remuneration Tribunal”.
This story has been updated.