Let’s make politicians great again

Anne SummersLet’s make politicians great againPosted by Anne Summers on 01 January 2017

Trump inauguration
Anne Summers
By Anne Summers

As we all wait in fear and trepidation to see what the new US President Donald Trump will do, to his country and to the world, including our region, it is utterly dispiriting to realise how ill-equipped our own political leaders are.

They are not providing us with guidance or reassurance and so we can have little confidence about how they will handle the perils that lie ahead.

And while it is surely a coincidence that revelations of excessive travel claims made by so many of our leaders has coincided with the lead-up to the Trump inauguration, these disclosures reveal so much about their values and priorities.

It is sobering, but also quite scary, to understand how these people operate.

If it were just one or two MPs, if it was just a junior minister, or if it was just the occasional excess, maybe we need not feel so worried.

But it is the Minister for Foreign Affairs, it’s the Minister for Finance, it’s the Attorney-General and, until she was forced to resign, it was the Minister for Health. The top dogs.

Some of the most senior members of the government have, time and again, charged taxpayers for travel and accommodation for themselves and their partners to attend sporting events that have nothing to do with their portfolios.

The man in charge of the nation’s finances has been doing so from the moment he became a minister.

We learnt last week that Senator Mathias Cormann slugged the taxpayer more than $23,000 over five years for trips with his wife to the coastal resort town of Broome. He claimed he had been there on electorate business, despite it being weekends.

Exactly a week after Senator Cormann was sworn in, along with the rest of the first Abbott Ministry on September 18, 2013, he travelled to Melbourne where he claimed Travelling Allowance (TA) of $432 for the night of September 26. He remained in Melbourne that weekend, and was joined by his wife whose return travel from Perth cost $2584.49. Senator Cormann did not claim TA for the next three nights but he did use a Commonwealth car, costing $94.10, on Saturday September 28, which happened to be the day of the AFL grand final. He was photographed at that event, along with several ministerial colleagues. He returned to Canberra the next night while his wife flew back to Perth.

He has since claimed that he had ministerial duties, including media commitments, throughout that weekend. If so, why didn’t he claim TA?

The sense of entitlement that is now second nature to so many of our federal MPs shows how seriously out of touch they are with ordinary Australians.

Even as Sussan Ley resigned from her cabinet position when she became politically toxic after egregious details were revealed of her reliance on taxpayer funds for out-of-state recreation, for enhancing her property portfolio and for maintaining her pilot’s licence, she maintained she’d done nothing wrong.

Just as Senator Cormann, Julie Bishop and George Brandis who’ve each enjoyed chartered flights, resort holidays, top sporting gigs or other treats courtesy of our taxes have all declared their innocence of impropriety.

Just as the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, could not bring himself to utter a syllable of disapproval of his Health Minister’s conduct.

Because it is clear that nothing is going to change.

The Prime Minister’s announcement of an independent parliamentary authority to oversee MPs travel and other entitlements did not include a review, let alone a repeal, of the extravagant and totally unnecessary family reunion travel provision.

These provide for nine (yes, nine!) business class trips per year for an MP’s spouse, and three for the children, between their electorate and Canberra.

Somehow these rules are now being interpreted to allow MPs to take partners and kids not just to Canberra but to holidays in Darwin or Uluru, weekends in Broome, apartment-buying sprees to the Gold Coast and of course to Melbourne for those grand finals and polo matches.

Mr Turnbull did not mention these because none of our leaders appear to have the slightest intention of relinquishing this perk.

They seem oblivious to the anger most of us feel when we learn about these antics which can only be described as an abuse of trust and which can only further feed the already powerful disillusionment with traditional politics that is giving rise to new political forces like Hansonism – and Trump.

Our politicians are blissfully sowing the seeds of their own destruction when they grant themselves such privileges – at the same as they are changing current entitlements for pensioners, Centrelink recipients and families needing childcare or paid parental leave. No wonder they are so ill-equipped to help us deal with the frightening world about to be unleashed by Donald Trump.

This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 20 January 2017.