Queensland premier Peter Beattie has obviously been enjoying himself in drawing attention to the police raids on a number of federal MPs’ offices, in what he dubbed “Printgate”.

According to the Courier Mail, he “accused the Queensland Liberal Party of using federal electoral entitlements to dishonestly prop up spending on last year’s state election.”

The media, not covered by parliamentary privilege, have been circumspect in their reporting, but reading between the lines it looks as if this could be a major scandal.

Reports this morning are that the MP at the centre of the allegations, Liberal backbencher Andrew Laming, who last night (in the time-honoured words) was “considering his future”, is “expected to make a statement on his future within hours”.

For a government that’s spent the last week attacking the opposition over issues of propriety, this isn’t good news. But it also highlights a more general point about federal politics.

Back in the 1980s, Michael Kinsley formulated his Law of Scandal: “the scandal isn’t what’s illegal; the scandal is what’s legal.” He was talking about lobbying, but MPs’ electorate entitlements are another prime example.

Both sides in federal parliament have co-operated over the years to raise allowances and deprive them of any meaningful scrutiny. Thanks to Malcolm Turnbull we already know about travel allowances, but printing and postage are probably of more serious concern.

The almost unlimited ability to send glossy brochures to their constituents on a regular basis gives a huge advantage to incumbents.

The allowance for lower house MPs is now $45,000 a year for postage and $150,000 a year for printing (increased by $25,000 just last year), and no-one any longer pretends that its purposes are not political.

Nor is cross-promotion anything new. Federal MPs use their newsletters and their staff time to assist their state colleagues, and vice versa. The days when an electorate office, paid for by taxpayers, was supposed to be politically neutral are long gone.

If the Queenslanders really did resort to illegal methods to top up their printing entitlements, it certainly wasn’t due to need.

But no matter how much we give politicians, they always want more.

Peter Fray

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