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Why do politicians think they're different to the rest of us?

Opinion

The latest travel scandals show that some Australian politicians fail to understand the world in which most of us are living, argues Andrea Michaels.

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Many politicians might be developing a post-Christmas headache with the Sussan Ley, Julie Bishop et al expense scandal exposing how problems with entitlements are far more widespread than the Australian people imagined.

Ultimately, it’s a cultural problem that should be urgently addressed with tighter governance structures.

Sussan Ley’s poor excuse that a taxpayer-funded trip during which she settled on a Gold Coast investment property was simply an ‘impulse buy’ is hard to stomach. So is Julie Bishop asking us to believe her attendance at a luxury polo match (as a guest of Peroni and Jeep) was all simply ‘just part of the job’.

While some of these trips might prove to be fully above board within the loose definitions of what is currently considered ‘work’ for our politicians, something needs to change. The system certainly wasn’t designed to work this way.

Even the most junior public servants are very aware of the do’s and don’ts of working in government. You don’t get to throw lavish Christmas parties for your department, or accept expensive gifts, or provide donations of time or money to influence decision-making. And you work hard to apply a very cautious and reasonable approach to expenses because it’s not your money you are spending, but that of the Australian people.

Yes, those elected to office work long hours and must attend many events both domestically and internationally as part of the job. We don’t want our politicians living in a bubble where they don’t go out and speak to real people about what’s going on in this country, or what can be done to make it better.

But there are differences between which events and obligations they accept for work and what they do for their own pleasure or personal needs.

I completely understand that it’s hard for an MP to switch off and take off their politician’s hat. Effectively they are on the job 24/7. I don’t imagine you could escape the flak even at a family BBQ.

And many MPs might argue everything is part of the job. But I say they need to have a good, hard look at themselves if they expect the Australian public to foot the bill for expenses that are very much in the grey area. I doubt if purchasing an investment property, attending celebrity polo matches or helicopter travel are duties done for the good of the country.

If they want to commute by helicopter or Lear jet, view properties, or attend A-list parties like a pop star, they can do so. But don’t send us the bill for it.

The average CEO also works long hours but if they tried to claim a recreational trip to the Australian Open, expenses while looking for property, or extended limo rides to catch up with friends, then I think they’d be in trouble.

Likewise, people who are self-employed take care when combining personal and business travel. They are asked to carefully apportion which part of the trip was personal or work-related when submitting information to the ATO. Anything else would be edging towards fraud.

If I went to Sydney for work and wanted to catch an Uber to a Westfield for shopping in my own time, I wouldn’t get my business to pay for that. I would have hoped the same rules applied to Ms Ley.

Why should politicians be any different in regard to the expenses they can claim?

Most people know that while unemployment rates are rising and our economic activity flatlines, we need to be far more fiscally aware. But, disappointingly, this seems lost to some in government.

If not for the media using freedom of information laws to expose these rorts, we might never know just how poorly our money is spent. I applaud the scrutiny. I just wish the problem wasn’t so entrenched.

The fact is, when you’re elected as an MP in Australia it’s both an honour and a responsibility. The Australian people put their trust in these people and their salaries are paid by taxpayers. This is something many seem to be forgetting.

If they want to commute by helicopter or Lear jet, view properties, or attend A-list parties like a pop star, they can do so. But don’t send us the bill for it. I think the Australian people have had enough of this behaviour.

In my opinion, a review into this mess can’t come quickly enough. We need to draw a line in the sand and be clear on what will happen if you attempt to misuse public money. It might encourage some of our MPs to wake up to the fact they need to be far more accountable.

Let’s hope we can at least take a rational look at the problem (there’s hype on both sides of the argument) and do something about it. Surely we can get a decent set of rules for the politicians if we just use some basic principles. For example, let’s assume Australia was a business owned by Cabinet. How would Cabinet ministers want their own money spent? That should provide a good framework.

Andrea Michaels is a tax and family business specialist and the Managing Director of Adelaide legal firm NDA Law.

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