10 August 2015

Mutually assured destruction

Once upon a time, when one major-party politician would abuse their entitlements so badly that even the press gallery noticed, a politician from the other major party would be found to have done something similar, and the checkmate would somehow neuter the story as far as the broadcast media were concerned. Today, things are different. First, the broadcast media don't set or control the agenda any more. Second, the major parties aren't the only options.

Policies on politicians' entitlements have been agreed by the major parties over many years. The press gallery avoid criticising them because they applaud bipartisanship as a good in itself, regardless of its impact on policy quality. If a politician has to fly somewhere to make an announcement that could just as easily have been made in Canberra, the broadcast media go along too and all regard it as a normal part of their jobs. They benefit from publicly-funded junkets despite the fact that the quality of reporting rarely improves.

Samantha Maiden is on Joe Hockey's case, as though he were the only MP with entitlements issues. This story adds heat but no light to the issue of politicians' entitlements, with not even the most timid implication that Hockey has breached 'the rules', and it even defends the indefensible Bishop.

Maiden's story includes an ethically questionable decision by her employer to run photographs of Hockey's children. Hockey is a public figure; his wife, Melissa, is an adult who chooses to join him in the public eye; but their children are not public figures. Nor are they adults as Margie-and-the-girls are. A decent news organisation would have pixellated pictures of the children or not run them at all.

With the focus on Bronwyn Bishop's travel entitlements, it was inevitable that there would be a Labor MP exposed doing something similar - and so there was, in Tony Burke, who apparently took his children of his former marriage on holiday with his current partner. Bishop's extravagance was not only a blow against the Coalition, but Burke inadvertently lent the story the sexual tut-tutting for which Murdoch papers exist (and which have helped fund their proprietor through not one but three divorces).

The Chris Pyne I knew from late 1980s student politics in Adelaide would have gone after Burke, calling him a hypocrite and worse, but the latter-day Pyne seems more conciliatory. Ease up on Burke, he says, making an unconvincing technical point about 'the rules'. Later we discover Pyne embroiled in a travel scandal of his own, and his office has the political tin ear to assert that Pyne's children had never seen the Sydney fireworks.

Whatever Pyne gained from the Adelaide frigates announcement, he lost on the Sydney fireworks. It was a let-them-eat-cake moment that you usually get from governments that have been in office way too long. Before you go on about first-term governments getting re-elected, consider that the Coalition has been in government for 13 of the last 19 years, with a frontbench pretty similar to the one behind Howard in 2007; now look at recent elections in Victoria, Queensland, and South Australia, and shut up about first-term governments.

Perhaps instead of flying his kids from Adelaide to Sydney at public expense during a time when airlines gouge passengers, it might have been cheaper for Pyne to write them a letter.

The tin ear for politics isn't confined to Pyne's office. Tess Randall is as entitled to run for Liberal preselection for her late father's seat as any member of the WA Liberals. Michaelia Cash and Christian Porter are two other second-generation Liberal politicians who have done exactly that. Leaving aside unkind remarks about the difficulty of being worse than Don Randall, Tess Randall may well be the Liberals' best candidate on preselection day; she may even become quite good as an MP. Her candidacy just feeds into the whole family entitlement thing that is killing this government.

I hold no brief for the alternative candidates. WA Liberal factional politics is incomprehensible even to other Liberals. Journalists covering WA politics avoid getting into it, and I don't blame them. It would be like taking a bucket of spiders and up-ending it over your head - you're in the dark, getting bitten from all sides, and if you open your mouth it will only get worse. I'm trying to think of a wimpy, equivocating WA Liberal politician, and frankly none come to mind.

It seems that apart from MPs' staffers and MPs' children, the only people winning Liberal preselections these days are members of the Australian Defence Force - particularly the Army. If turning back asylum-seekers was such a good and popular policy, one would expect a) Navy recruitment to have increased significantly, and b) the Liberal Party to be beset by preselection applications from naval officers with proud tales of boats turned back, bearing witness to the efficacy and rightness of the policy. One would expect RAAF officers to turn to politics for something to do; the last one to do so was Jackie Kelly. ADF personnel vote Coalition more than any other occupational group, but the long-running and badly-managed controversy over pay is yet another captain's call that has cost this government. The last non-commissioned ADF member to enter politics was Jacqui Lambie - expect more to follow.

ADF personnel don't get members of their family flown to meet them at public expense. They have to pay for any such trips themselves, on lower salaries than politicians get. MP's families should visit Canberra or wherever, but such trips should be paid for by the MPs themselves. The contrary case, the case for the status quo, cannot be made even by Canberra insiders. It should not have survived successive rounds of cuts by various governments.

Some countries, such as Indonesia, have quotas for serving armed forces personnel in parliament. In others, such as the US Congress, there has been a strong correlation between military and political service. Given the resonance of the Anzac legend and the relative decline of other institutions in our society, is Australian politics headed down this road?

Regardless who wins Liberal preselection, the Canning byelection will pretty much seal Tony Abbott's fate. It is interesting that Bishop did not issue the writs before she quit, and the party organisation has taken so long to get into campaign mode. There will not be a Liberal leadership spill before then, despite worthless commentary declaring the government's vacuity to be somehow recent and sudden. There will not be one afterwards in the highly unlikely event that there is a swing toward the Liberals; a swing against, especially if the Liberal candidate loses the seat, will make the empty chair that ran against Abbott in February look pretty good.

The inquiry into entitlements is made up of the same sort of ex-politicians who are petitioning the High Court for more lurks - those from the major parties. In a two-party-preferred political environment, an agreement by major parties can contain the political fallout. We don't have such an environment - entitlements scandals depress the vote of both the Coalition and the ALP, to the profit of independents and minor parties. Those who've never been part of the you-scratch-my-back bipartisan arrangements will get the benefit of the doubt, not incumbents who swear to do better or protest some non-existent right to bill the taxpayer for a family jaunt.

There used to be two types of MP who stood against politicians' entitlements - only one is still in public life.

The first were those abstemious, self-educated ALP types who'd take homemade lunches to work in a paper bag, who were so grateful for an indoors job with no heavy lifting that they would spend their own money on raffle tickets, community events and other incidentals. Labor don't make this type of politician any more, replaced with fixers who cut the sorts of deals that led to this plethora of 'entitlements'. Noely Neate is very good on the issue of public entitlements and party fundraisers.

The second are conservatives with a bit of money behind them. Clive Palmer and Malcolm Turnbull have made disparaging comments about entitlements - and the related issue of political donations. All are well-travelled and don't need to have all their receipts picked over in public; those they don't wish to appear in public are paid from their own pockets. They will not be so vulgar about hotel sites or helicopters as Bishop was - I mean, fancy having to rent a helicopter. Neither have much trouble in raising funds, and both benefit from the implicit perception that their wealth insulates them from being unduly influenced.

They have done little to spoil the fun of their less fortunate colleagues, who are using public resources to do the mind-broadening travel many of us did in private capacities. I'll tell you what I want to tell you about my travels. Have a look at the reports that politicians do from "study tours", and question how much could have been done from within Canberra using the internet.

The idea behind giving politicians a salary and entitlements, and moving the capital to Canberra, was to get them to focus on our interests over their own. Private interests upped the ante with lobbyists and fundraising, so - as in the 19th century - political-class members deal with our interests when they're not too distracted with their own perks and lurks. A kick-the-bums-out parliament might not be the sort of timocracy that we saw in colonial parliaments before Federation, and that we see in developing countries today. Raising your perspective beyond today's major parties opens options they cannot face, they dare not face, and will not present as options to a Parliament that will still largely vote the way party bosses bloody well tell them to vote, never you mind why and don't even ask.

The press gallery will not be able to deal with an entitlements system that isn't bipartisan, but the emergence of a political system that goes beyond today's major parties assumes the press gallery has even less influence than it does today - and as regular readers can imagine, I'm OK with that.


  1. Worth noting that News Corp have run an apology and retraction on the Tony Burke story, something they rarely seem to do (and certainly rarely do so quickly or unequivocally, especially for a story slinging mud at the ALP). Someone got sold a very dud story, apparently.

    1. I smell a writ, Anonymous.

      Meanwhile, some of the Newscorpse mud will undoubtedly stick to Mr Burke - which is the main aim of the game as far as that exemplary organisation is concerned.

  2. Excellent piece.
    The entitlement review will be the usual sham run by embedded individuals. A few minor restrictions to allowable expenses which will create an excuse for a high salary increase. Happens each time.

  3. I want the entitlement scandal to be over so we can get back to good government

    1. hmmmm what is good govt ? Is it something that your forefathers told you about ?