Ending A Culture of Entitlement

Another day, and the drip of stories on Members of Parliament and their entitlements continues. Inevitably, this has been accompanied by a chorus of calls for changes to “the rules”.

What’s needed is not a look at the rules, but rather, a change in the culture of entitlement.

There has been no end of reviews of Parliamentary entitlements in the past decade. There was this 2001 Audit Office review of entitlements, which was followed by the Audit Office’s 2009 review. Then there was the Committee for Review of Parliamentary Entitlements (commonly known as the Belcher Review) in 2010. Then there was the Williams Review of the administration of Parliamentary entitlements in early 2011. And then there was a review by the Remuneration Tribunal in 2011, which included a valuable work value assessment of Members of Parliament.

These have provided no end of “reforms” to the legislation, rules and processes underpinning the system of Parliamentary remuneration and allowances. And to be fair, some of these reforms post-date the occasions that have prompted the spate of recent controversies.

Yet any measure of regulatory change is meaningless unless it is accompanied by a change in culture. A culture which sees Members of Parliament conflate the personal and the political so that there is no longer any meaningful distinction. A culture that somehow sees every social function, even one as personal as a guest at a friend or colleague’s wedding, as an official duty.

I was surprised by some of the reaction to the fuss created by my initial post, that prompted the scrutiny of Brandis’ claims on the publications entitlement. My look at the publications entitlement was never intended to settle on him alone, but working through the individual claims reports is an time consuming task, unaided by anything like the convenience of the search function on the Scottish Parliament site.

While the focus is now on travel allowances, the maximum publication allowance of $3,699 for metropolitan MHRs and $4,948 for Senators and non-metropolitan MHRs amounts to a total bill of $1.01 million a year. There is a case for broadening the publication allowance beyond the newspapers and periodicals permitted by the system between 1990 and 2005. For instance,  the MPs who now purchase manuals on such matters as welfare rights and tenancy law that undoubtedly assist with constituent work.

What struck me was the blurring of the line between official functions and personal pleasure and edification: an unhealthy perspective of seeing just about anything and everything as ultimately political in nature.

It was the mindset of buying a survey of a water colourist’s life and art, a Tudor history or Isaiah Berlin’s letters and then reaching for Form 145 and making a claim on the taxpayer for the cost of the reading.

The same mindset apparent in dozens of claims lodged by Brandis’ colleagues.

It’s Senator Arthur Sinodinos charging the cost of six copies of his former boss’ memoirs (John Howard’s “Lazarus Rising”) to the taxpayers – one of 10 MPs who claimed for 29 copies between them.

And 14 of Tony Abbott’s colleagues claiming for 35 copies of “Battlelines” between them.

(Incidentally, Labor luminaries don’t seem to attract the same sort of fraternal duty from their colleagues. Only nine MPs claimed for Lindsay Tanner’s “Sideshow” – including only five ALP Members – while three claimed for Maxine McKew’s “Tales from the Political Trenches”).

It’s Ken O’Dowd, the Queensland MP who used his allowance to purchase more than 120 books in 2012, including 24 Disney story books (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and The Beast, Cars, Winnie The Pooh, Alice in Wonderland, Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and Monsters Inc), along with the Guinness Book of Records, Grace Kelly Style, The Very Happy Caterpillar and Hubble Bubble Granny Trouble. A more complete list of his purchases can be found here.

But he has nothing on his fellow Queensland LNP MP, Scott Buchholz, the Member for Wright,  who in one month in 2011 splurged $2272.70 on 268 books , including such titles as Bumble the Bee Learns About Seasons, Peppa Pig George’s Birthday Sticker Story, five copies of Dora the Explorer: Hide and Seek, and 10 copies of Paddington and the Disappearing Sandwich.

In June 2012, he submitted a claim for nearly 300 books – mostly children’s titles again – for a total of just over $2500. In total, over $4700 on more than 500 children’s books in just 2 months.

One assumes that Mr Buchholz is not indulging an inner child, and these 500 children’s books were purchased at financial year’s end to soak up the unspent allowance and were gifted to libraries or schools in his electorate. But it’s evidence of more subsidising of good works and profile building by the public purse.

(And as minor as it seems I do want to acknowledge the three Members of Parliament who charged “The Magic Pudding” to their allowance. The jokes about informing themselves on economic matters write themselves.)

The purpose of the allowance should be to help MPs do their job; not to give them a richer reading experience, make them more rounded people or bestow their munificence on the younger members of the electorate.

It should not be there to reward a mindset that seeks to shoehorn every personal engagement or purchase into somehow meeting the test of  “Parliamentary, electorate or official business”.

The mindset that seemed evident in WA Labor Senator Louise Pratt badgering Finance Department officials at an Estimates hearing earlier this year to rule on whether she was entitled to use of a Comcar to meet a friend for a morning run because:

“When I am away from home, I like to do the normal things that you need to do in order to maintain your lifestyle…

So a social engagement like I had yesterday morning, which was exercise, or other things that you need to do to maintain your existence when you are away from home are not part of those personal services? ..

I am obliged to take the car to Parliament House to run on the treadmill rather than take a car to a friend’s house so that I can run around the lake. Is that what you are telling me?”

Earlier this week, Greens Leader, Christine Milne called for reforms to the entitlements system. Yet she hardly comes to the debate free of pushing entitlements rules to their limits; in her case, with regards to staffing and severance pay.

She attributed the recent departure of a significant number of staffers from her office to the offer of “redundancies” that she said were offered after every election.

The “redundancies” are actually severance payments payable when the leader of a minor party loses their job. They are the equivalent of what would have been paid to staffers employed by Kevin Rudd or Julia Gillard or Malcolm Turnbull each time they were deposed in the party room.

Because The Greens rules require a “spill” of the leadership after every election, according to the rules, she had “lost” the leadership, her staff were deemed “redundant”, and “generous” (in Milne’s own words) severance payments were on offer. Milne walked into the party room as leader, and walked out as leader; yet taxpayers foot the bill to pad out the pay of staffers who had already indicated their desire to depart after the election.

The same thing occurred after the 2010 election, where Bob Brown remained leader, yet up to $42,000 was paid out in severance benefits to Greens staffers because of the “loss of leadership” provision.

Members of Parliament of all stripes will publicly bewail the complexity of the system, and call for changes and reforms. But the change has to come from somewhere more fundamental than rules and regulations.

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