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Media

Apr 24, 2017

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The travel expenses scandal is a perennial favourite of the Australian news media (especially over the summer).

We hate to see our politicians getting greedy, or taking more than we think they’ve earned. Once news breaks that a politician has been squeezing every last bit out of their parliamentary entitlements (or more), there are very tricky waters to navigate if pollies want to keep their jobs.

Media intelligence agency Isentia has crunched the numbers on coverage of politicians’ expense scandals over the past two years to find out what makes a travel expenses scandal, and what happens to the pollies who get caught up.

In about 10 such scandals to hit the media over the past few years, the most important thing a politician can do when they get sprung is ‘fess up.

“These are issues that keep growing,” Isentia research and insights chief executive Khali Sakkas told Crikey. “What happens if you don’t respond is that the story becomes that you are not responding.”

And more than that, it’s a question of fairness, Sakkas says.

“Australians have this really big sense of fairness, and if things are unfair, we’ll try to seek justice for them. It’s unfair to be able to buy apartments on a whim,” she said.

On average, a travel expenses scandal stays in the media for 16 days, and if it doesn’t pass the pub test, the pollie will be out of a job eight days after the story broke.

But one case study that stood out was then-health minister Sussan Ley, who earlier this year resigned from Malcolm Turnbull’s frontbench after a scandal over her travel expenses.

Instead of taking two days to meaningfully respond to the initial reports of charging taxpayers to travel to the Gold Coast for a New Year’s Eve party, Ley took four days. And in expense-scandal time, that’s far too long. By the time a second strike came into play (the apartment Ley said she bought as an impulse-purchase), Ley didn’t have much chance of salvaging her career.

[We lodged an FOI on Ley’s diary, came up empty-handed]

“The issue was dying,” Sakkas said. There was one day where outraged Twitter users could only muster the energy to write 11 angry tweets. “Then the apartment came into play as well,” Sakkas said. “That just propelled it. It was a second hit that really propelled the media attention.”

To add to that, Ley was the health minister at a time when the government was chasing false Centrelink debts and had just cut pensions.

“There was this juxtaposition of this person buying an apartment on a whim, using a private jet and partying on the Gold Coast, compared to the government demanding repayment of Centrelink debt and cuts to 330,000 pensioners,” Sakkas said. “It just fed this idea that politicians have their snouts in the trough.”

In a situation like Ley’s, there was little chance she was going to keep her job, even if she had’ve responded earlier.

“The optics of buying an apartment on a whim was a second strike. This additional issue ensured the story was prominent across all media types and perhaps all of this combined to force action,” Sakkas said.

On average, for politicians who lose their jobs after an expenses scandal, 8000 news items (print, radio, television and online) will be published about the issue. Ley had about 1100 news items published — more than 2 million words were published online and in print about it, and about 5600 stories were broadcast on TV and radio.

Not all scandals Isentia assessed ended up with a sacking. Don Randall, Tony Burke and Steven Irons all kept their jobs. They gave a meaningful response to the scandal breaking a day earlier than cases where politicians lost their jobs.

So the lesson is clear: if you’re a pollie embroiled in an travel expenses scandal, it’s best to say something meaningful, ASAP. But if it’s not going to pass the sniff test, it probably doesn’t matter how quick you show your contrition. 

News

Feb 10, 2017

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From the Crikey grapevine, the latest tips and rumours …

Sorry we missed you. This week, Australia Post has had a grand lesson in the Streisand Effect over its failed attempt to keep the multimillion-dollar wage of the managing director under wraps, lest it cause “brand damage” — though they might have been right about that one. No other topic this week has managed to unite the Parliament, from the Prime Minister to Pauline Hanson, to Labor and the Greens; all seem in complete agreement that Ahmed Fahour is paid way too much. The company has clearly been facing the heat from the media, too. When Crikey yesterday attempted to contact Australia Post via the usual media email address we were greeted with the following amusing response:

We were tempted to leave a card, but we can report that a second email did manage to make it through.

Imagine all the people living life in peace. Another thing that seems to have drawn together Labor and the Coalition is a keen interest in getting the Lennon Bus to come to Australia. The bus that travels around to schools to teach kids about music and the technology needed to create music. Coalition Senator Barry O’Sullivan and Labor Senator Glenn Sterle have invited MPs, staffers and journalists to come meet the brains behind the bus next week in Parliament in a push to garner support for bringing the bus down from the northern hemisphere for an Australian tour. World peace might be further off than ever before, but at least politicians can seemingly agree on something.

 

Dreamworld seeks new PR. Perhaps unsurprisingly, after the accident that resulted in the deaths of four people at the Dreamworld theme park in October last year and the company’s poor response to the incident in the days that followed, Dreamworld’s head of PR and internal communications role is vacant. According to the job ad, the person in question needs a focus on “pro-active activity, but supportive of reactive opportunities that come to the business”.

The new person will have their work cut out for them. Dreamworld ticket sales were reportedly down 50% in January compared to the same time in 2016.

Laming triples down. After the summer Facebook fight in which LNP MP Andrew Laming made the very poor decision to ask whether teachers were back at work or still “lesson planning” from home, Laming ended the short three-day first sitting week of Parliament (weeks after school went back, incidentally) attempting to resolve his summer fight by, surprise surprise, blaming unions. In the Federation Chamber on Thursday, Laming blamed unions for why good teachers couldn’t get ahead:

“Last month my Facebook post about teachers evoked enormous shock with the uncomfortable question being explored of precisely why teachers are doing so much work from home and why it is unpaid. As a profession, my great concern is that teaching has been under union control and this has made it harder and harder for teachers of excellence to be recognised, to advance their career and to be rewarded for it.”

Dig up, Laming.

Old Macdonald had a gold pass. For parliamentarians covering themselves in glory this week, look no further than LNP Senator Ian Macdonald. Macdonald — who has been in Parliament since 1990 — is one of a few remaining elected representatives who would be eligible for the Life Gold Pass were it not on the chopping block. Macdonald says he doesn’t need it for himself because he is going to leave Parliament in a box (somewhat macabre and maybe also a threat?) but says he needs to stand up for those former politicians who “aren’t paid very well” and should get a say in the debate. The base salary for parliamentarians is $195,130 per annum from July 1, 2013.

If only politicians could have a voice in Parliament? In any case, as Crikey reported earlier this week, due to previous changes, the scheme only currently covers a few dozen former MPs, and most of those barely use it. Macdonald’s attempt to set up an inquiry into the axing of the Life Gold Pass failed on the voices. Ms Tips assumes Macdonald will now go back to his usual parliamentary role of telling Labor leader in the Senate Penny Wong to shush during question time.

*Heard anything that might interest Crikey? Send your tips to boss@crikey.com.au or use our guaranteed anonymous form

Federal

Feb 7, 2017

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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.

Federal

Feb 6, 2017

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Federal politicians are back at work today after a long summer break, and at last the halls of power are full of more than just news-hungry journalists and dead Bogong moths. But what have those who have to be in Parliament House been doing since the middle of December? 

As you walk through security at the various entrances, there is a screen above the metal detector that tells you what is happening in particular rooms in the building. For most of the summer break, there were few line items. 

In December there was still the odd committee hearing, but after the last gasp of political news for the year — the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook — everything just about shut up shop.

Even MYEFO is a pale imitation of its bigger sibling, the budget. Just a short 50-minute lock-up, which occupies just one room instead of the full six-hour affair taking up numerous committee rooms. And only the full-time gallery journalists show up to MYEFO. There’s no Treasurer’s speech, just a blue room press conference. When it was all over, that was it for 2016.

For the media, skeleton staff remained between Christmas and the first few weeks of January, but for the Department of Parliamentary Services, it was a busy few weeks. The red and green carpets were cleaned or replaced. The wooden floors were waxed. The walls were given a fresh coat of paint. The lights were turned off in the two chambers.

As I wandered the Senate side hallways in the first few days of January to discover whether Rod Culleton had been kicked out of his office yet (he hadn’t, but he has now), very official-looking warning signs alerting to waxed floors and wet paint dotted the halls.

Journalists went a bit more casual. A select few braved shorts for the extremely hot Canberra summer days. In one of the quieter moments in early January, cricket was played in the halls of the press gallery.

Many spent that January time knee-deep in PDFs looking for juicy expenses stories, like the one that brought down Sussan Ley. 

Aussie’s — the cafe just past security on the Senate side where politicians, staffers, journalists and lobbyists tend to meet for coffee — shut down for the first few weeks of the year, leaving either the public cafe or the Trough for hungry staff and journos. But the company that managed the Trough lost its contract at the end of 2016, leading to an odd clearance sale of wine in the last few days of the year for those still around.

The cafeteria and coffee is now managed internally, meaning for the first few weeks, the options were limited and the self-serve ordering system gone. Promises were made that this would be restored in early February (when the important people are back).

Inside the building, the silence was only interrupted every so often for tour groups. Outside it was business as usual, as scores of tourists lined up for selfies outside Parliament House — no fences here yet — in the very spot where, just over a month ago, the waters were red and lined with protesters. 

But by last week, the monitor by security was filled with events. A room booked by Christopher Pyne for defence meetings, committee hearings kicked into gear, and the Great Hall was decked out for the Australian of the Year announcement.

Staffers returned as cabinet meetings were held, and the PM and opposition leader give National Press Club speeches.

Life returns to Canberra. Such as it exists in the bush capital.

Tips and rumours

Jan 30, 2017

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Have we reached the bottom of the barrel when it comes to expenses rorts and MPs? Probably not, but it isn’t for a lack of trying. Over the weekend Fairfax papers carried the headline “Two MPs run up $200,000 tab on private flights to work in Canberra”. The MPs in question are the Nationals’ Darren Chester and Mark Coulton. Chester, who represents the seat of Gippsland with an office in far east Victorian town Lakes Entrance, lives four hours drive from Melbourne airport (without traffic), which is then an hour flight from Canberra. If he were to do the drive, then take a commercial flight, it would take the same amount of time as driving directly to Canberra from Lakes Entrance — a five-hour trip.

Former senator Ricky Muir, who was based in Bairnsdale during his short-lived stint in Parliament, used to drive to sitting weeks with his wife at the wheel — but not everyone is a motoring enthusiast. The calculations in the story show that it would take Coulton six hours of combined road and air travel to get to Canberra by commercial flights if he weren’t using a charter plane to get to sitting weeks. Charter flights aren’t always an unnecessary luxury.

This morning, an unrepentant Trade Minister Steve Ciobo told ABC’s AM program that attending the AFL grand final in 2013 and charging taxpayers in flights and car costs for the privilege was part of the job of being a minister, and taxpayers expected him to charge them for it.

“I go along to games here in my own electorate, I use a taxpayer-funded vehicle to get there, and I think people expect that.”

“I would love to see Australia’s Prime Minister … at a key game … between the Wallabies and the All Blacks …”

He said it was work business because the companies inviting him along to the games were showcasing their businesses to the ministers invited.

That raises an interesting prospect for other claims made by other parliamentarians, if we are going to look at the sorts of businesses showing off their services to ministers. For instance, Kevin Andrews, when he was defence minister in 2014, went to the Emirates Stakes Day and Cox Plate, with gambling giant William Hill picking up the tab. But he did slog taxpayers with $334.05 and $324.88 in Comcar costs on those days respectively.

If we are going to start examining the businesses wining and dining our MPs at sporting and other cultural events and look into the value to ministers, Ciobo might have opened up a much larger can of worms than he realises.

Federal

Jan 13, 2017

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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:

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.

News

Jan 13, 2017

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From the Crikey grapevine, the latest tips and rumours …

Betting on expected expenses. This morning, an unrepentant Trade Minister Steve Ciobo told ABC’s AM program that attending the AFL grand final in 2013 and charging taxpayers in flights and car costs for the privilege was part of the job of being a minister, and taxpayers expected him to charge them for it.

“I go along to games here in my own electorate, I use a taxpayer-funded vehicle to get there, and I think people expect that.”

“I would love to see Australia’s Prime Minister … at a key game … between the Wallabies and the All Blacks …”

He said it was work business because the companies inviting him along to the games were showcasing their businesses to the ministers invited.

That raises an interesting prospect for other claims made by other parliamentarians, if we are going to look at the sorts of businesses showing off their services to ministers. For instance, Kevin Andrews, when he was defence minister in 2014, went to the Emirates Stakes Day and Cox Plate, with gambling giant William Hill picking up the tab. But he did slog taxpayers with $334.05 and $324.88 in Comcar costs on those days respectively.

If we are going to start examining the businesses wining and dining our MPs at sporting and other cultural events and look into the value to ministers, Ciobo might have opened up a much larger can of worms than he realises.

Rogers’ rabbiting. Like politician’s expenses, stories about the online postings of One Nation candidates are becoming a daily occurrence. Today it is Peter Rogers, who will run for the Queensland seat of Mulgrave in the state election this year. BuzzFeed reported on his blog posts, in which he says the photo of Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi, lying dead on a Turkish beach, was fake, as was the Port Arthur massacre. Rogers’ website is a revealing insight into his ways of thinking, with posts on conspiracy theories, global warming and the United Nations, but it was taken down just before 10.30 this morning.

Rogers also gave visitors to his website the chance to take part in many polls on issues he cares about, including Queensland’s bikie laws, the United Nations and halal certification. The polls gave a few options chosen by Rogers (we presume) but also the opportunity to add your own answers, which are then available to others to view. One poll asks “should treason/sedition laws be brought back in and those found guilty executed?” and the options included “yes if there is no doubt they committed the crime” “laws are too tough as it is” and “Absolutely, there has to be severe punishment for betraying a nation. Whatever the majority decide I would support. I do not believe most citizens of Australia want to be involved with the UN or the EU at this time in history.” It’s unclear if that last one was provided by Rogers or added by a reader.

peter-rogers-poll-1

The option to add answers to the polls has created a few issues though, with the two polls attached to the article about Alan Kurdi. One asks “do you believe the drowned boy story?” and the possible answers include “Peter Rogers is a goose,” “peter Rogers is a mad cunt” and “Peter Rogers has the face of a smashed meat pie”. Another poll asked “Do you think Abbott was an innocent victim of the Turnbull/Abbott coup?”, and the answers given included the (obviously false) and particularly vitriolic “Peter Rogers gave aids to monkeys first”.

peter-rogers-poll-2

peter-rogers-poll-3

Sometimes user engagement isn’t for the best.

Reds under the bed, on the screen. Well that’s awkward. American political TV channel C-SPAN (which shows “gavel-to-gavel” coverage of the US Congress) says it is investigating after its live coverage of US House of Representatives suddenly switched to a live feed of Russia Today. Yes, that’s the Kremlin-backed, English news channel of Russia, which was showing on C-SPAN for about 10 minutes before the feed was switched back, Politico reports. Deadspin editor Tim Burke recorded a video of the change, and uploaded it to Twitter:

timothy-burke-tweet

C-SPAN explained in a statement “As RT is one of the networks we regularly monitor, we are operating under the assumption that it was an internal routing issue”.

Not dead yet. Soon-to-be/not-quite former senator Rod Culleton says he is still a senator because “I’ve still got my senator’s badge on and I’m going to my senator’s office”, and as Ms Tips’ spy in Parliament House shows, the office name plate does still bear his name. For now …

rod-culleton-office

*Heard anything that might interest Crikey? Send your tips to boss@crikey.com.au or use our guaranteed anonymous form

Federal

Jan 12, 2017

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In a bizarre press release yesterday, even by Malcolm Roberts’ own standards, One Nation’s wackiest senator has found a miraculous invention that will solve all our travel rort woes.

How to stop the endless cycle of pollies misusing their expense allowances and being caught over summer and forced to repay them? There is a simple solution, as we suggested yesterday: easily accessible data and more frequent reporting. But the Senator from Queensland yesterday proposed a solution that could best be described as a press release relaying something someone told him at the pub. Roberts wants a “transparency portal”:

“A transparency portal is an inexpensive web-based computer programme that displays all government expenditure on the internet in real time for public view. It has been proven to pay for itself many times over with the expenditure it saves through higher accountability. The portal is used throughout the United States and Europe; now it’s Australia’s turn!”

[Pollie expenses are an easy fix, but don’t hold your breath]

This came after a briefing from Tim Andrews, from the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance. The group has been calling for such websites for years, and it is a laudable goal. Some of the sites listed on ATA’s website would be perfect models for Australia. However, Roberts’ proposal is scant in detail, and seems to conflate government contracts with politicians’ spending:

“Mr Andrews informed me that in the US the portal was used to uncover the fact that in one state government printer-cartridges were being double ordered, and a thrifty member of the public saved the government $500,000USD,” Roberts said.

“Within months of the portal being implemented overseas most governments departments immediately reduced expenditure significantly as they realised they were being watched by millions of people.”

[Taxpayers foot $2 million bill for jetsetting pollies during election campaign]

For a man so keen on empirical evidence, these claims were difficult to back up. There was one vague mention in an IPA piece about toner cartridges but nothing of the sort claimed by Roberts, and in a previous submission to the productivity commission, ATA makes a very different claim about printer cartridges:

“In Texas, the State Comptroller was able to utilise the transparency website to identify $4.8 million in savings directly attributed to the launch of the transparency website, and identified an additional $3.8 million in expected savings. This included $73,000 from combining printer and toner contracts and $250,000 from not printing a duplicate study from another agency.”

There is already a site where people can view government contracts. It’s called Austender. Here is a printer cartridge contract from Defence in November. It could definitely be improved, and a whole-of-government tracking of spending would be one way to improve transparency and accountability. One of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s promises when he came into government as the communications minister was to get the Digital Transformation Agency to have a dashboard for government IT contracts to not only show such detail but also the progress of the projects. Although, as we have reported, given the problems with the agency under its former leader Paul Shetler — now strangely the media’s go-to expert on Centrelink’s issues — perhaps it’s not surprising that there is very scant data on the dashboard so far.

Good on One Nation for giving it a go in the transparency fight (I look forward to them arguing for more transparency around the offshore detention contracts with Immigration), but without any detail in the announcement, Roberts’ mysterious one-size-fits-all “web-based computer programme transparency portal” just sounds like snake oil.

Federal

Jan 11, 2017

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Ministers and shadow ministers charged taxpayers for flights and accommodation to attend their own party’s campaign launches in July’s federal election, as MPs racked up millions of dollars in travel expenses during the election campaign.

A Crikey analysis of claims made by all MPs and senators from when the writs were issued on May 9 until the end of June 30 last year found that in total the cost for flights, travel expenses, Comcar and other travel costs during the election total over $2.078 million for the marathon eight-week election campaign. This was of course during the caretaker period — a time when little to no governing actually goes on and when politicians are fiercely focused on winning their seats back, an activity for which they are not allowed to charge the taxpayer.

Several senior government ministers even went as far as to charge taxpayers to attend their party’s launch in the final weeks of the campaign in June. These include Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, Justice Minister Michael Keenan, Employment Minister Michaelia Cash, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton and Attorney-General George Brandis all charging either flights or accommodation expenses for the June 26 Liberal Party campaign launch in Sydney.

On the Labor side it was no different, with opposition health spokeswoman Catherine King, former opposition defence spokesman Stephen Conroy and shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus charging taxpayers for flights to Labor’s campaign launch a week earlier.

The common wisdom that expenses were no longer available to MPs after the campaign launches did not hold true either, with Cash and Cormann charging for their flights back from the launches.

Crikey is not suggesting that politicians were breaking travel allowance rules in making these claims. All these expenses are believed to be within the rules and existing conventions that allow politicians to claim expenses for official business including campaign launches. But they highlight how much public funding already goes into the election campaigns by stealth for both the major parties and incumbent MPs in a time when there is pressure for limits on private donations and the introduction of proper public funding in Australian elections.

The use of expenses is not something explicitly addressed in the guidelines on caretaker conventions issued by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. And indeed, looking through all 232 separate expense claims (some for retiring MPs) filed by parliamentarians shows wildly different approaches in claiming expenses. While some politicians seemed to bill most things to the taxpayer, some were very specific, billing only for events on a particular day, or one one particular trip. Around 50 politicians — most of them retiring but not all — billed for virtually nothing at all during the election. And some MPs who were not recontesting their seats nonetheless managed to bill the taxpayer quite a lot for flights and Comcars around the country. Retiring NT senator Nova Peris, for example, billed Australians more than $7000 for flights during the campaign, even though she did not recontest her seat. She announced she was stepping down on May 24 but continued to file expense claims until late June.

Many ministers and shadow ministers were sent around the country at taxpayers’ expense to make announcements during the campaign, such as when Kelly O’Dwyer visited Geraldton in June. Labor Senator Sam Dastyari clocked up travel expenses of more than $7000 crisscrossing the country by plane and on the Bill Bus. During the whole eight weeks, embattled Health Minister Sussan Ley took more flights than any other MP at 42, followed, surprisingly by Canberra-based shadow assistant treasurer Andrew Leigh at 39 flights in eight weeks. Greens leader Richard Di Natale came in fourth with 34 flights, but racked up a massive 130 Comcar trips in the eight weeks, adding up to $15,292. Julie Bishop had the highest Comcar bill during the election at $26,126.

The Coalition’s campaign spokesperson, Mathias Cormann, who was forced to reside in Canberra for most of the campaign, racked up the highest travel allowance bill for the election at $11,745, followed by Ley on $11,072 and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten on $10,436.

The flight costs for both Shorten and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull were not included in their expenses data, but both claimed travel expenses for much of the campaign.

This data for theses expenses is not available in any easily digestible format, so we were forced to painstakingly examine each PDF for every politician individually and tally up the costs per politician for the eight-week election period. The spreadsheet is available here.