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Aug 6, 2015

Quit your faux parsimonious whingeing, and let pollies fly the way they need to

The Prime Minister doesn't need Air Force One, but he does need a plane big enough to accommodate his staff. Australia's obsession with political spend is tiresome.


There can now be little doubt that former speaker Bronwyn Bishop mistook extravagance for necessity and now functions for the Abbott government as a woman-sized pink batt. Even if she did not, as has been repeatedly claimed by her insulating Prime Minister, exceed the rules, she certainly exceeded common sense when she elected to spend so much on chartered travel. It is hard to feel pity for a person who has demonstrated so little of it politically herself, and it’s very easy to remind her, publicly and often, that Victorian Labor governments have kept public transport to Geelong at reasonable prices. If she had shown her seniors card, the trifling journey from Melbourne would have been just $5.90 by train and not, as was reported $5227.27 by helicopter.

It’s easy to chide Bishop for her flights of ultra-convenience, Tony Burke for his trip to Uluru, Philip Ruddock for his “Hollywood-themed” ball and, of course, Peter Slipper for his wine-, and possibly mollusc-, related Cabcharge use. As Crikey offered to politicians Tuesday, “pay for your own damn holidays”. Quite. These are persons who, however hard-working, are privileged not only with decent salaries but the management of us. You don’t charter a chopper or pop off to a tropical bolthole with funds provided by those who entrusted you with the revenues of an entire nation. It is not just the money you squandered, you tools. What you continue to spend is our faith that you know what to do with a dollar at all.

This stuff is shocking, but it’s also kind of fun. But what is not so pleasing is to concede that we voters have a more general national difficulty with high office and the luxuries or conveniences it should entail. This is not to suggest that we should excuse another politician who has flown if not actually beyond the bounds of travel entitlements, then well beyond reason. This is not even to suggest that the old Australian habit of parsimony is a bad thing, even if it now really only extends to politicians and is no longer practised by us big spenders at all.

That we frown, for example, upon first-class international air travel for leaders speaks of our stubborn and endearing thrift. But there is a good case to be made for deluxe passage for ministers en route to international summits and one, unfortunately, former foreign minister Bob Carr did not make well with his poor jokes about the quality of operas available for view in business class. Puccini is not going to make much of a diplomatic difference but, arguably, a solid night’s sleep under a rug that has been scrubbed of a previous passenger’s fluids really will. Personally, I don’t want Greg Hunt turning up to the Paris summit with an even grumpier attitude toward climate change than is his custom. Let him have the free slippers and the couverture chocolate. If such comforts help convince him that the planet is warmed by industry, throw in a hydrating face mask as well.

As Crikey aviation reporter Ben Sandilands wrote last year, the national attitude to “excess” in the air doesn’t stop at commercial flights. The Royal Australian Air Force VIP aircrafts available, although not with Air Force One exclusivity, to the Prime Minister were sufficiently clapped out that John Howard was advised during his term that he might fall out of the sky. Fearing political death almost as much as actual death, he ordered an alternative, the least luxurious configuration he reasonably could. The Boeing, wrote Sandilands, fails to accommodate the staff a travelling prime minister might require. That the Australian Antarctic Division’s Airbus, presumably a less dedicated craft, sometimes flies in tandem with the RAAF jet is proof of the electorate’s need to see no greed. It might be more expensive, less secure and terribly inefficient to maintain a humble appearance for prime ministerial flights. But it keeps a nation who demands frugality from its representatives happy.

In 1962, Jacqueline Kennedy took much of America through her careful White House restoration. In a must-see television special, the first lady explained to almost half of the US population how she had spent 2 million of their dollars on bespoke wallpaper panels that depicted the Civil War and replacement of inauthentic fabric. A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy did not attract critique but wide appreciation for the well-finished lady’s ability to shop. It is tricky to imagine Pattie Menzies, who had knocked out a few bedroom walls in her first turn at the Lodge, mimicking the success in the same year. The headlines then would have been as they are now “Lodge renovations costs blow out”.

There is a practical case for first class ministerial travel, VIP aircraft in which prime ministerial business can continue and a more political one for a Lodge that does not have an interior like a Metricon display home past its prime.  As cosseted and petty as America’s First Renovators might seem to us, their appreciation and construction of an administrative aesthetic has helped US citizens see their president, for better or worse, as truly American.

But there is nothing less truly Australian than tolerating a politician’s budget. Resenting their spend is a nonpartisan pastime. The left doesn’t like it because it’s flashy and the right would prefer that money be disbursed on the free market instead of a state-owned sofa.

Of course, the bastards should pay for their own damn holidays. But perhaps we occasionally pay for our own demands of political thrift with inefficient government.


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19 thoughts on “Quit your faux parsimonious whingeing, and let pollies fly the way they need to

  1. klewso

    Just how much would a case of “Good Government” cost?

  2. mikeb

    It would seem that all the 1st-class travel in the world won’t turn this Government into a good one.

  3. Flickknifetipsy

    Really Mr Sandilands? Really???
    I want my parliamentary representative to consider costs in the same way that they want me to pay taxes and come down hard on any Centerlink rort without consideration of intent or excuses! I don’t throw my own money away so why right do pollies have to be so cavalier when they spend the few dollars I hand over to them, in trust? IN TRUST!!

  4. Flickknifetipsy

    And one other thought. You mention a budget. Who sets the travel budget and where can we look at it?

  5. drsmithy

    There is a practical case for first class ministerial travel, […]

    No there’s not.

    Business class is quite adequate to ensure a traveller arrives as well rested as can be expected, and usually half the cost. First class is about needless luxurious extravagance, its practical improvements over Business are minor.

    And there is no case, whatsoever, for a politician’s family to be ferried around using taxpayer money as a matter of course.

  6. Helen Razer

    I hear you, @drsmithy and I do, as I think is made plain, concur absolutely that no politician should take a fancy schamncy vacation or even an unnecessary cab ride on our dollar. But, to the matter of first v business class passage, I am led by those with expertise in the matter and cannot completely agree.
    In working as a copy editor for a travel magazine, I interviewed many (anonymous) flight attendants about amenity and conditions of the various classes and how each prepared a business traveller. I couldn’t print most of it in a family friendly mag but, for your benefit, I’ll tell you that they said that even in the more luxe, flatbed style business class of the better international airlines, privacy, security and peace were in short supply. You can’t, for example, look at a laptop screen and be sure that no one else can see it. If Julie Bishop travels, as she did to much “she’s travelling business !” fanfare, to a security council meeting with the middle-class, she will not be able to look at sensitive materials mid air. Carr, as badly as he did it, makes a similar case in his memoirs and says what the flight attendants I spoke with affirm: it can be quite difficult to sleep in this cabin. Foreign ministers need to sleep. Perhaps not all ministers need to have the sleep and privacy that first class guarantees but some do and the much celebrated “no first class for pollies” statements by Abbott should not be as applauded as they are. Contingent on time frames, privacy concerns and the diplomatic importance of a mission, first class should, in some cases, be available to cabinet. But, it’s not. The inflexibility of the rule is ridiculous. Because the difference, as I found in conversation, is not just frette linen pyjamas and goody bags. It’s, as I said, privacy and security and the different conventions observed by passengers in the different cabins.
    I don’t know how to put this nicely so I shan’t even try to find a euphemism for what the hosties told me which is that business class is, very regularly, people by literal wankers.
    “The cabin blankets are stiff with seed” is how one attendant put it when she told me that she has not worked in an international business class cabin since the arrival of the laptop that did not hold at least one male passenger who was selecting x-rated materials with one hand and doing you-know-what with the other.
    (She also said that this never happened in economy, and if it ever happened in first, she wouldn’t know as people had the decency to shut their pod doors).
    It’s not surprising that a place which regularly holds born-to-rule, male, freshly minted millionaires should occasionally produce a passenger who is a “man” and doesn’t care who knows it. It’s not surprising that far more alcohol is consumed per passenger in business than any other class. It is surprising to me that people think that business class is nice when it has more potential than any other part of the plane to be full of the most openly offensive people on the planet. Even if it were a financial possibility for me to make the choice I would always select, for reasons of personal safety, an economy seat over a business one on a long haul flight. (But, neither of us would say no to an upgrade to first, right?!)
    I understand your point and I agree that for most of us normal people whose decisions and whose privacy are of little relative consequence that the difference between business and first is mostly one of goody bags. Not for people who actually need room to breathe and think, though.

  7. Helen Razer

    Hi @Flickknifetipsy. Sandilands wasn’t the author of this piece, I was. Either way, it certainly wasn’t a justification for profligate spending. I draw your attention to the use of the term “tools” to describe those politicians who would vacation on our dime.

  8. Helen Razer

    ^Also, the Department of Finance looks after entitlements. Here is access to their reporting http://www.finance.gov.au/publications/parliamentarians-reporting/

  9. maffey vashti

    I have little issue with airfares. I dont think may do. I have issues with the tens of thousands of dollars they spend on ‘extras’ over and above flights and accomodation. It seem to be largely ignored, in favour of bickering over business v first class.

  10. mikeb

    “The cabin blankets are stiff with seed” hahaha. Nice little anecdote but just a bit of an exaggeration? Good lord imagine what British pollies would get up to?

  11. Aengus Hannigan

    If not for regular blatant abuse of MP entitlements no one would mind reasonable travel arrangements. Now that the public is fed up with scandals we start challenging what would normally be a safe ground. Politicians pushed their luck way too far and now they are experiencing a proportionate reaction. It’s not enough to follow the rules anymore – the rules have to change, and not in pollies’ favour, to appease the enraged electorate. MPs, thank Abbott and Bishop for their stubborn reluctance to admit the mistake and cut the losses.

  12. Findelgin

    I have absolutely no problem with politicians travelling on legitimate government business in a style that is appropriate to the circumstances. I don’t have a problem with paying for a spouse to accompany them if that spouse needs to play a role in hospitality situations etc such as Helena Carr was doing. What I have a problem with is politicians who travel needlessly or who cook up meetings to put them in a location they were going to for personal reasons. Especially in this day and age when video conferencing between colleagues is so easy. I have a problem with politicians who make claims without providing evidence that official business did in fact take
    place. I have a problem with extravagance in a climate of alleged need for austerity. I have a problem with being charged for attendance at party fundraisers. And I most certainly have a problem with being charged for attendance at weddings that are not part of official diplomacy or for participating in leisure activities like football games or cycling events. By all means take your kids and wife to Uluru if you are genuinely conducting business and take a few extra days to enjoy it with them but pay for their costs yourself. it isnt about parsimony at all. It is about excercising due economy and not committing fraud claiming private tor party business travel as official business travel.
    It would be nice to think that our “leaders” held such strong morals that they could resist the temptation of a system designed to lure them into inappropriate practices but they are human and when everyone else is getting away with it well.. we end up where we are. Our politicians have to deal with mega wealthy people with an agenda and the pollies seem to get to a place where they think they should be living in a more lavish mode than they they can afford. If they think that in private life they would have amassed the wealth to support a private jet or chauffered limo day in day out then please by all means leave and go do it.

  13. drsmithy

    I have been fortunate enough in the past to fly in First (BA, QF, JL) a few times and Business reasonably often (BA, QF, AA, JL, RJ) – surprisingly accessible when you learn how to play the rewards points games and aren’t leaving from Australia. So I speak with some personal experience and I reiterate my original statement.

    Julie Bishop would have a privacy screen on her laptop, just like everyone else from a secretary upwards with a need to look at even vaguely confidential institutional data does. On top of which I’m sure she rarely travels alone, and thus would have a trusted person in the next seat, if not several around as well.

    Despite what your hostie mates might tell you, business is not a hive of debauchery and sleeping is quite easy. Most people in there are actual (and usually more senior) business travellers and upper middle class leisure travellers. The “freshly minted millionaires” are the ones flying first to show off how rich they are.

    If it’s that important a minister be well rested, then they’ll be arriving a day early just like any business executive or similar would. It’s not like most of them have demanding schedules.

    Ultimately, it’s not just about money, it’s about culture, which is defined from the top down. Greedy and selfish behaviour from our politicians will (and has) lead to greedy and selfish behaviour by our society.

  14. The Pav

    Business Class not 1st Class
    Happy enough for family travel given the number of nights away but economy not business

    End contrived meetings to justify travel for fund raisers.

    Serious reporting of value and learnings from travel

  15. Gavin Moodie

    The difficulty is with sequence. A skepticism about 1st class facilities for ministers is entirely rational when those same ministers abuse the same entitlements for private benefit. Perhaps if pollies abused fewer perks of office the electorate would be more tolerant of their prerequisites of office.

  16. klewso

    It’s not as though they’re not earning enough to pay for those flights that others on similar wages have too?

  17. Itsarort

    Back in the early 70’s, teachers and backbenchers were paid similar salaries. Now, in 2015, a Federal Backbencher is on about $195K plus a potential $60K of “entitlements”. Teachers on the other hand, are on about $90K plus some minus dollars when they give kids books, pens and pencils from their own money…

    What makes this disparity particularly insidious is that most of the monetary gain in recent times by Pollies has been made under the banner of “everyone must tighten their belts…”; Orwell would have had a field day with these jet-setting chopper pigs (and you can shove walking on two legs up your arse…).

    Furthermore, Governments, both Federal and State, both Coalition and Labor, have implemented laws that make decent wage claims almost illegal while simultaneously handing themselves wopping and unchallenged salary and entitlement rises.

    We, the public, have a lot to grumble about.

  18. Helen Razer

    Sure, @drsmithy. My humble lady “hostie” knowledge is no match for your world travel.

  19. Norman Hanscombe

    For a long time now it’s been obvious that instead of endless waffle about Rules which are poorly written, the media should have talked among themselves to come up with a worthwhile consensus on what they should present as a United Front on persuading Parliaments to act.
    Talk about it’s hardly rocket science. It’s not even at the sparkler science difficulty level.


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