Strange how sometimes an incident will catch fire and turn into a full-blown scandal, and other times vanish from sight. In 2010, then-opposition leader Tony Abbott faced media questions about why taxpayers had funded his promotional tour for his book Battlelines. The questions were from, of all people, Glenn Milne.  At the time, Abbott’s office claimed charging taxpayers to promote the book was completely appropriate, and any suggestion otherwise was “a blatant attempt by Labor to smear and mislead”.

A few weeks after Milne’s story, Abbott’s Chief of Staff Peta Credlin had the money repaid, something we didn’t find out until Margo Kingston was given the relevant documents through freedom of information laws earlier this year. At the time, Credlin said Abbott had claimed the expenses “inadvertently”. As you do.

Well done, Glenn.

Unlike the revelations about George “Dancin’ Man” Brandis and Barnaby “Weddings, Parties, Anything” Joyce that started the current conflagration over expenses, Milne’s discussion of Abbott’s “inadvertent” Battlelines expenses sparked no wider scrutiny of MPs’ abuse of a system that allows them their own judgment about what’s a work-related expense — a privilege sadly not afforded the rest of us. It’s as if the media decided to give the whole issue a pass.

Lest you think that reflects some sort of partisanship, Kevin Rudd and several of his colleagues enjoyed something similar when revelations that they had benefited from the largesse of Chinese tycoons while in opposition only emerged once Rudd was Prime Minister. Rudd’s assiduous cultivation of Chinese interests, for the benefit of Labor Party coffers, had been well known for some time, and the Register of Pecuniary Interests had, in nearly every case, contained the relevant facts for some time. But Rudd and colleagues like (former defence minister) Stephen Smith faced no questions until they were in government.

Being in opposition increases the risks around money for MPs. Incomes are lower, for starters, and resources are scarcer, especially for shadow ministers who have to try to match their government counterparts with a tiny fraction of the budget; one of the reasons Rudd and others accepted travel overseas from Chinese interests is that there was no allowance for the shadow foreign minister to travel internationally.

That of course doesn’t apply to Mark “snowbunny” Dreyfus, who forgot the inevitability with which any Labor criticism of the Coalition would rebound on them, when it was revealed a Labor MP had similarly made inappropriate claims — it was Dreyfus himself who was caught out. Nice work.

And it doesn’t apply to going to the wedding of a blogger, in the case of Michael Smith, or even of a parliamentary or party colleague like Sophie Mirabella or Peter Slipper or the unfortunate Hajnal Ban, whose wedding was graced by both Barnaby Joyce and Ron Boswell.

“It’s not the sort of thing that necessarily switches votes … but it colours the way everything a government does is viewed.”

Nor does it apply to Slipper, who is insisting he is somehow hard done by because he’s in the dock for expenses claims when everyone else gets to pay theirs back.

Richard Ackland explained the legal issues that distinguish the case of Slipper from others. But Slipper was also a serial offender, having been forced to repay large amounts of wrongly-claimed entitlements on multiple occasions during his lengthy parliamentary career — something the Coalition was content to keep hushed up while he was one of their own and they were in government.

Abbott — who at least claims physically demanding events like Iron Man competitions and philanthropy as well as indulgences like book tours and weddings — is now in a position, as Prime Minister, to do something about the system; as a bloke who has learnt how easy it is to “inadvertently” claim money to which he is not entitled, he would surely be eager to curb this drain on taxpayers?

Strangely, no, on the basis, he said this week, that there would always be disputes at the margins no matter what rules you put in place. Which is a lot like saying there’s no point having rules about tax deductions because there’ll always be taxpayers who will try to game the system.

Sounds good to me personally, but probably less good from a fiscal policy perspective.

Here’s where all this gets a little more serious for Abbott. A key reason he’s become Prime Minister is that he convinced voters he would offer a better standard of government than his predecessor. Like Rudd convincing voters he felt their pain on cost of living pressures, like John Howard telling voters the constant change and big vision of the Hawke-Keating years would end with him, like Bob Hawke promising consensus instead of remorseless union-employer conflict, Abbott sold voters on governing differently and better.

A lot of that was rubbish, of course — the Coalition is now mulling adding to Australia’s debt burden, but hiding it as infrastructure bonds, rather than curbing debt. It turns out we all misunderstood what Abbott and Immigration Minister Scott Morrison meant when they said they’d turn back the boats. But the impression that snouts are in the trough, that MPs regard entitlement abuse as part of the perks of office, and that that view extends to the Prime Minister himself, will hasten the inevitable disillusionment voters always experience as they learn that the new government isn’t of any higher standard than its predecessor.

Abbott campaigned as a political moralist — he would never break promises, he wouldn’t surprise businesses with sudden policy changes, he would stop the waste, he would underpromise and overdeliver, etc etc. But as Coalition MPs twirled around the wedding dancefloor at taxpayers’ expense, they were exhibiting a political morality no better, and possibly poorer, than that of the government they so savagely attacked.

Voters will notice. It’s not the sort of thing that necessarily switches votes — voters kept re-electing Howard despite knowing just how cynical he was — but it colours the way everything a government does is viewed. Voters always end up disillusioned with governments. In this case, that appears to be coming quicker than usual.

Peter Fray

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