Some voters are probably a bit unhappy at the idea of multi-millionaire environment minister Malcolm Turnbull claiming $175 a night for the hardship of staying in his wife’s apartment in Canberra. But it doesn’t seem to worry the politicians.

According to John Howard “It’s totally within the rules”, and he helpfully pointed to opposition leader Kevin Rudd and Turnbull’s shadow Peter Garret as other examples of very wealthy MPs. Rudd himself echoed the sentiment, saying “Mr Turnbull has acted entirely within the rules”, and criticising attacks on him as “negative, personal muck-raking”.

Senior Liberal backbencher Bruce Baird was almost poignant in his defence of the arrangements: “What people forget is you’ve got to feed yourself too.” Imagine thinking that a cabinet minister’s salary of $205,188 would be enough to cover the grocery bills!

Howard yesterday said “I don’t hear people saying there should be some kind of income test on whether people are paid an allowance”. But why not? We don’t pay pensions to millionaires, so why should we pay travel allowances?

Payment for MPs is designed to ensure that the poor are able to stand for parliament; when the rich choose to stand, what justification is there for letting them draw on the public purse as well?

Rudd’s response contrasts with Mark Latham’s triumphant attack three years ago on the parliamentary superannuation scheme. That too provided payouts that were perfectly lawful, but nonetheless scandalous. Latham forced a reluctant government to terminate the scheme rather that allow him to continue to draw oxygen from such a popular issue.

It’s a good example of why I prefer Latham to Rudd. He wasn’t afraid to take on sacred cows, and he genuinely cared about economic reform – or what the right calls “class warfare” when it threatens their own interests.

But the Latham experiment failed, and Labor this time has decided to play it safe. It may be the wise choice, but it means the rorters will be able to breathe easier.

Peter Fray

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