When everyone is rushing to cover the same story, a lot of the detail can unfortunately get lost. If we want to move past the endless cycle of expenses stories, we need to make the controversy hang around long enough to make politicians actually do something about it.
The funny thing about expenses stories being the flavour of every summer — when journalists have enough time to painstakingly sift through vast amounts of documents trying to match one line item against a declaration of a free ticket to an event, or something an MP posted on social media — is that if these stories were spread out over the year, each, taken individually, would lead the news for at least a day.
Given so much of the media — including Crikey — has been scrutinising questionable expense claims, they’ve all begun to somewhat blur over the past week, as each trip to the Gold Coast or charter flight is replaced by a trip to the AFL, or charging taxpayers so you can go to your own party’s election campaign launch. The flow of stories has been stronger than anything allegedly witnessed in the Presidential Suite of the Moscow Ritz-Carlton by President-elect Donald Trump. When I have run into other journalists in the press gallery this week (those of us who are back in the office so far, anyway), most say they are knee-deep in expenses forms.
It’s worth singling these out and remembering the full scope of expenses stories that have been reported in the past week or so:
- Sussan Ley on the Gold Coast, attending New Year’s Eve events with a major Liberal Party donor who got major contracts from the government for a job network; $13,000 in charter flights to Canberra from Albury;
- Ministers charged taxpayers to go to the 2013 AFL grand final;
- Ministers charged taxpayers to go to the PM’s New Year’s Eve function;
- Julie Bishop attended polo and other events with the taxpayer footing the bill;
- Darren Chester picked up his investment property keys;
- $2 million charged to taxpayers to fly ministers and pollies around during the election period, including paying for Peter Dutton, George Brandis and Mathias Cormann to go to their own party’s election launch; and
- Bill Shorten spending up big on flights before the election.
No doubt there will be more to come in the weekend spreads, and the Sunday papers. We’ve seen a minister stand aside, and another minister today defended going to sporting events and rubbing shoulders with the business community, with Trade Minister Steve Ciobo saying Australians expected politicians to be at sporting events (the traditional booing from the crowds whenever a PM — other than Hawkie — is there suggests otherwise). The Turnbull government is quite likely planning some hasty announcements for next week to move the news cycle on, but until there is reform on travel expenses, it remains important to shine a light on the expenses claims that “don’t pass the pub test”.
The other minister in the spotlight this week was Human Services Minister Alan Tudge, finally returning from his holiday back into the Centrelink automated mess that awaited him. Tudge, like Christian Porter before him, stuck to the talking points. Only 20% of assessments made by the data-matching algorithm were inaccurate, he says. The wait times for Centrelink callers aren’t too long. The government’s stubborn refusal to suspend the notice system until such time as the error can be fixed, coupled with over 170,000 notices now issued, means this is definitely not going away any time soon.
One thing that is going away, well, maybe, is former One Nation senator Rod Culleton. At least according to the government, and the Parliament website, he is now a former senator. Culleton disagreed, and then asked “who is the government?”. A question for the ages. Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett said he would not recommend any suggestions put forward by One Nation leader Pauline Hanson if they did not meet the WA cabinet expectations, meaning the seat could sit vacant for some time yet – if Culleton doesn’t try to just rock up and sit back in it, that is. Maybe the Queen will turn up to intervene in his case, as he has suggested she might.
Culleton has been a colourful, if strange addition to federal politics, and nowhere near as toxic as some of his colleagues like Malcolm Roberts, or some of the One Nation candidates put forward by Hanson this week, including a Port Arthur truther, and at least two anti-gay candidates.