The pollie perk of free travel for former parliamentarians will be cut off sooner rather than later, as the PM goes for the easy quick fix to public dismay over politicians’ entitlements.
Work on improving reporting and cracking down on the misuse of travel expenses for our current parliamentarians is still underway; Special Minister of State Scott Ryan told the ABC yesterday that it would take time to get an IT system in place to cope with monthly reporting — although there are off-the-shelf solutions that could easily do this now. But in the meantime, the government has moved to act on what is the low-hanging fruit of killing off the perk offered to former parliamentarians of free travel with the Life Gold Pass.
The Life Gold Pass is a perk that has existed almost as long as federation itself, but over time the rules have tightened around who can claim what and when. It used to be a reward for time served, available to even the most unambitious or undesirable backbencher who managed to serve 20 years or the life of seven parliaments. It has also been available to former ministers and former prime ministers depending on the length of time served.
Former prime minister Julia Gillard cut off the scheme for politicians entering Parliament after March 2012 and limited it to 10 domestic return flights per year. At its peak with close to 200 former politicians making claims, it was costing over $700,000 per year for the government. Then in 2014, the Abbott government announced it would immediately cut off the Life Gold Pass for those who earned it for their time in Parliament alone, and would phase it out entirely by 2020, introducing a “public benefit” test for former MPs to show that their reason for travelling on the taxpayer dime was in the public interest. Although never legislating for it, the mere cutting off of the benefit for those who had been in Parliament for seven terms or 20 years drastically reduced the number of former pollies who could claim it down to 46 at the last reporting for the first half of 2016.
The Abbott government’s proposed changes were challenged in the High Court by former MPs — including one former minister who resigned due to the “colour TV affair” of the early 1980s — who claimed it was part of their pay packet for being a member of Parliament. The High Court rejected their case in October last year.
The change announced by Ryan on Tuesday will simply bring forward the cut-off for everyone except former prime ministers. Those who are still claiming it aren’t entirely racking up big bills for the government. The largest in the last reporting period was former speaker Peter Slipper spending $12,620.23 on flights mainly between Sydney, Brisbane and Canberra, with one trip to Queensland islands.
It will only save the government $5 million over the forward estimates, but as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told the Coalition party room on Tuesday morning (after two politicians believed to be Warren Entsch and Ian Macdonald complained about it), the change just reflected public feeling on politician entitlements.
“A lot of Australian families are doing it tough, and we have had to make cuts to supplements and to adjust the assets test to help the budget. We are in tough times and we have to lead by example,” the PM told the party room.
The Life Gold Pass was an easy target, and the Greens are now upping the pressure on the government to crack down on the generous pensions offered to former parliamentarians. As some former parliamentarians get both a state and federal pension if they have served in both parliaments, or former parliamentarians take corporate gigs or jobs as talking heads on Sky News, it is going to appear more and more unnecessary to continue to pay them after they’ve bowed out of politics.
The announcement on Tuesday does go some way to cracking down on the entitlements of current politicians. Legislation introduced will set up an independent expenses authority that will review expenses claimed by MPs and also offer advice to MPs who are confused as to what might be within the guidelines. Ryan said on Monday that due to the thousands of claims made by MPs every year it would be impossible to get the panel to approve every single one.
Another interesting complaint about expenses brought up in the Coalition party room but yet to gain much attention was a complaint from one member about office fit-out costs. Included in the parliamentarian expenses released by the Department of Finance every six months is how much MPs spend on decking out his or her electorate office. This drew attention most recently in 2015 when Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce claimed $670,000 on his office fit-out. The MP in the party room, Crikey understands, complained that it was Department of Parliamentary Services that had discretion over how much was spent, but it was ultimately the MP who took the hit for the high cost.