“Should Australia’s richest politician hand his allowance back?” asks the Sunday Telegraph, after it “revealed” that MP Malcolm Turnbull claims his $175 travel allowance when staying in a townhouse in Canberra owned by his wife Lucy.

It’s early days, but this story has to be a favourite for worst beat-up of 2007. It represents the politics of envy at its worst.

Not only ministers like Turnbull, but also other MPs and Senators, their staff and literally hundreds of others who work in Parliament House receive travel allowance when they come to Canberra.

It’s one of the many types of entitlement and allowances available to politicians, including electorate allowance, postage and official travel. Nobody so far (although the Turnbull story comes close) has suggested these allowances be means tested: they are simply part of the total salary package.

If we went down the track of altering allowances based on who owned the property, or how rich the occupants were, where would it stop?

Few Federal MPs and Senators stay in hotels when they come to Canberra: some rent accommodation, some own it, some elect to share digs with other colleagues. Maybe we should ask those MPs who share a flat to pay back half their allowances – clearly they don’t need as much!

Instead of an allowance, it would be possible to reimburse parliamentarians for their actual expenses, on production of receipts, in the same way some corporations handle travel allowance. But it would be time consuming, administratively burdensome, encourage overspending, and leave the system more open to fraud.

There is an even more old-fashioned alternative: build hostels for MPs, and condemn them to the dormitory life experienced by politicians in the early days of Canberra. That would certainly deter any wealthy person from ever thinking about entering the parliament.

Maybe this sort of attack plays well for the readers of the Sunday Telegraph, but it won’t encourage better government in this country.

Peter Fray

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