MPs show they still don't get it on travel entitlements

Politicians should remember that businesspeople who overuse the perks of office are rarely portrayed favourably. Photo: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

When you fill in your tax return, the ATO very kindly sends you a little coloured pie chart on behalf of the government showing how your tax dollars are spent.

It lacks a sliver for the cost of running Canberra, especially paying for the travel entitlements of MPs.

In the past five years, Australian taxpayers have spent $7.5 million flying the families of politicians around the country, including $1.04 million in the last six months of 2014, straight after Joe Hockey’s swingeing budget cuts and insistence that the nation tighten its belt.

For the last few years, Australian taxpayers have been lectured about the end of age of entitlement, a budget emergency and government profligacy. But it seems MPs would rather not take their own political rhetoric to heart.

A rare outbreak of bipartisanship has emerged between the Labor and Liberal parties in recent days over MP entitlements and travel expenditure after the initial attacks on Bronwyn Bishop for her now notorious $5000 helicopter ride.

Education minister Christopher Pyne said you can’t criticise Labor’s Tony Burke for billing taxpayers $12,000 for his family flying business class to join him at Uluru in 2012.

It subsequently emerged that taxpayers coughed up $7000 for Pyne’s family, including four children, to fly business from Adelaide to Canberra to watch dad in action on the opening day of the 2013 parliament, and another $5000 to fly three family members, at $1200 each, to Sydney for a six-day trip on Boxing Day, 2009.

Education minister Christopher Pyne. Photo: Stefan Postles/ Getty.

Pyne met with then opposition leader Tony Abbott as the justification for the Sydney trip and a spokesperson helpfully offered that they didn’t see the New Year’s Eve fireworks.

Asked if the trip to Canberra was excessive, Pyne, part of an opposition team that railed against Labor’s profligacy in government, responded: “They are the rules… I don’t think that’s an unfair thing for them to do.”

“I haven’t done anything wrong,” he said.

Circling the wagons

But if he truly believes spending $7000 of other people’s money on business class travel for children passes the “pub test” then you have to wonder what beer he’s drinking in the front bar.

Labor’s Anthony Albanese rushed to the Pyne’s defence saying “It is not, I don’t believe, unreasonable that Christopher’s kids were there to see him sworn in.”

He’s absolutely right, but conveniently ignores the fact that the point is HOW they got there.

No-one expects a politician’s kids to take the bus, but even if it is within the “rules”, it’s hard to comprehend how spending that much money on a 90-minute flight for small children is defensible.

It’s fine for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as they ferry their kids to movie sets, Russian oligarchs and Arab oil sheiks, but the expectation is they’re using their own funds rather than sending the bill to people earning far less money than they do.

The parade of excuses trotted out by politicians to justify their actions would be laughable if not for the fact that these are your taxes at work.

Tasmanian senator Eric Abetz declared that MPs had to fly business class to read confidential documents. Great. No problem with that. But are the kids in business reading those confidential documents too?

The Australian reported last week that federal MP travel entitlements jumped 17% to $35.4 million in 2014, a $5 million increase on 2013, an election year.

Family travel expenses rose 13% above the previous four-year average.

Politicians cite long hours and time away from family as reasons for this extraordinarily generous perk. It seems they are somehow more unique than FIFO workers away from their families for weeks on end, or the average commuter, leaving for work before their kids are up and getting home after they’re in bed, or the thousands of business execs required to travel both here and overseas for work.

And here’s the rub about the hardship of being in Canberra: in 2014, the Australian House of Representatives sat for just 72 days, compared to 164 days for the UK House of Commons and 130 for Canada’s lower house.

The “woe is me” bleating is breathtaking. If public office is such a burden, then best find another job. That’s what Australian workers do without the benefits of the generous retirement entitlements of political life.

Earlier this year, when talking about tax rates, treasurer Joe Hockey said “Australians spend the first six months of the year working for the government”.

The average annual wage is around $75,000. Even an entry level MP, also known as a backbencher, is on $195,000, plus allowances and entitlements.

The average Aussie worker pays around $15,000 in tax annually. So in this instance, one Australian had to work for six months just to pay enough tax to cover the cost of flying a Christoper Pyne’s family to Canberra to watch dad at work.

The $7.5 million family travel bill means 500 Australian taxpayers had to work for an entire year just to cover the cost of MPs flying their kids business class around the country.

The litany of MPs exploiting this perk has continued to pile up over the weekend.

Treasurer Joe Hockey – whose marriage to an investment banker makes him one of the wealthiest MPs – spent $8000 to fly his family business class to Perth, during school holidays in April 2013.

The trip cost $14,000 all up. That’s one taxpayer’s entire year of tax spent on the now treasurer’s working family holiday.

The hits keep coming

Immigration minister Peter Dutton. Photo: Getty Images

Overnight, immigration minister Peter Dutton became the latest MP revealed as enjoying taxpayer largesse, spending $140,000 for his family to fly business class, mostly between Brisbane and Canberra, over the past five years.

That includes a three-day trip to Cairns in July last year ,which included his wife and three children, and cost taxpayers $7210. It’s legit because the then health minister had “numerous” commitments, according to a spokesperson.

The Herald Sun says the PM’s own family spent $74,000 since he became Liberal leader in 2009, including flights for his wife and two adult daughters from Sydney to the Melbourne Cup and Derby Day.

Labor’s Brendan O’Connor also made family trips to Uluru and Cairns while on “official business”.

Despite what politicians claim, the family reunion scheme seems to be little more than a perk used to hitch a taxpayer-funded family holiday to parliamentary work in places many Australians can only dream of visiting for a break.

No MP ever seems to use the family reunion entitlement during a visit to a disadvantaged remote Aboriginal community or a fact-finding mission to a town on its knees as its manufacturing base collapses.

And if you’re still not convinced that some politicians consider these entitlements a right and believe they’re being unfairly picked on, Fairfax Media revealed on the weekend that four former MPs – Labor’s Barry Cunningham, Tony Lamb and Barry Cohen and Liberal John Moore – have launched High Court legal action to claw back more taxpayer-funded allowances and travel entitlements.

The Gillard government trimmed the generous entitlement scheme in 2011, but the four, currently receiving between $81,000 and $115,000 annually, along with other entitlements, want more.

They even sought financial help from the Commonwealth for the case.

Prime minister Tony Abbott points to changes to MP’s entitlements he’s made, including stopping MPs employing family members (an earlier scandal) and first class travel overseas, as proof he’s tackling the issue.

He’s now asked for a “root and branch” review of entitlements saying that “the sorts of expenses which are fair and reasonable for politicians are the sorts of expenses that will be fair and reasonable for business”.

The fact that no-one felt this way until the details of Bishop’s $5000 helicopter trip broke a month ago is telling.

If an Australian business behaved like this, the company CEO would be grilled by furious shareholders. Meanwhile, the Fringe Benefits Tax implications, imposed by Canberra, would have everyone wondering if it was all worth it in the first place.

It’s also worth noting that Abbott’s 2014 budget plan to scrap the lucrative gold travel pass, which gives retired MPs 10 free flights annually, hasn’t happened. It’s stalled in the Senate, where politicians are reluctant to surrender their perk, which costs taxpayers around $1 million a year.

Scrapping the gold pass is now heading to the review instead. And the former politicians launching the High Court action want the old scheme of unlimited travel reinstated.

Bronwyn Bishop’s shocking profligacy has ultimately done Australian taxpayers a huge favour. It’s brought scrutiny to areas of political life that are astonishingly out of step with rhetoric of financial pain and austerity delivered to voters on a regular basis.

Australian taxpayers are entitled to expect politicians to share some of the belt tightening they demand of voters.

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