Four weddings and an expensive library
Australia prime minister Tony Abbott has found himself embroiled in an expenses scandal
Liberal MP Julie Bishop is involved in an expenses scandal that saw her and others claim “overseas study” allowances to pay for flights home from a wedding in India. Photograph: Reuters
For someone who campaigned from opposition on the Labor Party’s “debt and deficit”, new Australian prime minister Tony Abbott has been forgiving of an expenses scandal engulfing a quarter of his front bench.
While Abbott’s relative silence since the Liberal-National coalition won power in a landslide six weeks ago is a refreshing change from Labor’s obsession with the 24-hour news cycle, the media, like nature, abhors a vacuum.
In the absence of a procession of political talking heads to fill every waking hour, the Australian media has instead been poring through years of political expense claims, and what it found is shocking for the brazenness of it all.
Abbott himself has admitted claiming expenses for travel to the weddings of two Liberal MPs in 2006. He subsequently repaid $1,095 (€770) for expenses relating to one, and $609 for the other, and his publisher repaid $9,400 claimed from taxpayers for a tour to promote his book Battlelines. But a spectacular Indian wedding has really raised the hackles. Liberal MPs Julie Bishop and Teresa Gambaro, and National Party deputy leader Barnaby Joyce, together claimed more than $12,000 in “overseas study” allowances to pay for their flights home from a wedding on the sub-continent in 2011.
Mining magnate Gina Rinehart – Australia’s richest person with a net worth of $22 billion – flew the MPs from Perth to Hyderabad in a private jet, where they watched her business partner’s granddaughter get married before 10,000 guests. Joyce, who said Rinehart saved the taxpayer money with her generosity, has also defended claiming $3,600 to fly him and his wife to Perth the day before they flew to India.
Another wedding was that of Sydney radio “shock jock” Michael Smith in 2011. Liberal Senator George Brandis claimed $1,700 on flights, car hire and an overnight “official business” allowance to attend the wedding.
Former Liberal MP Peter Reith, who in 2000 was embroiled in an investigation over the improper use of a phone card with a bill of $50,000, defended the wedding expenses. “I think it’s ridiculous putting limits on where ministers can go,” he said.
“You’d be a mug if you didn’t go to a shock jock’s wedding if you’re invited.” Joyce too attended Smith’s wedding and also claimed expenses. Both he and Brandis have since repaid the money. Brandis, however, says it was legitimate to spend almost $13,000 of taxpayer funds on books and magazines over the past four years, along with $7,000 for a bookcase to hold them.
An unrepentant Brandis told an Australian newspaper that people expected politicians to be well-informed and “plainly some MPs take that responsibility more seriously than others”.
Labor was making hay over the Liberal and National parties’ discomfort, but forgot the golden rule about people in glass houses.
Within hours of demanding an investigation into the expenses scandal, Labor frontbencher Mark Dreyfus had to repay $466 used for accommodation on a ski trip. It hasn’t hurt his career though. Dreyfus was yesterday announced as shadow attorney-general by Labor’s new leader Bill Shorten.
Shorten is the first Labor leader to be partly elected by party members. Previously only serving politicians had a vote in who the leader would be, but the rules were changed by outgoing Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd, with a 50:50 split between the party’s 40,000 members and the 86 MPs and senators.
Though rival candidate Anthony Albanese won almost 60 per cent of the votes of party members, Shorten won almost 64 per cent of the caucus vote. With equal weighting, he won 52 per cent of the combined vote.
After two terms of Labor government, the public service naturally has had to make some changes with the coalition’s return to power. One of those has been to ban the use of the spelling “program”, which is common is Australia.
In 1996, when the Liberal’s John Howard became prime minister, he issued a memo telling the bureaucracy to avoid ‘‘program’’ in favour of ‘‘programme’’. Abbott is Howard’s protégé, and some in the public service have sought to get on his right side by changing text on websites and government documents.
One bureaucrat, frustrated at the extra work created, told the Canberra Times it was ‘‘trivial f***ing nonsense’’.