Sydney Letter: When expenses and numerology don’t add up
Political intrigue: Revelations on health minister Sussan Ley ultimately force resignation
Australia’s then health minister Sussan Ley pictured in August with prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. Ms Ley, who added the third “s” to her name to, in her words, make her life more exciting, resigned on Friday amid controversy over her expenses. Photograph: David Moir/EPA
There are some certainties about January in Australia. It will be very hot, cricket will dominate television - and there will be political intrigue.
For successive prime ministers, January must seem like it was invented for the sole purpose of ruining their Christmas/summer break.
This month’s expenses and welfare scandals, magnified and multiplied because there isn’t much else to report, must be particularly worrying for prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. No Australian prime minister has served a full term since 2007, and his numbers were already very low.
The now former health minister Sussan Ley looked like she had aged 10 years when she announced on Monday she was temporarily stepping aside so her expenses claims could be examined.
However, numbers were never her strong point. In 2015, Ley explained the superfluous third “s” in her name.
“I read about this numerology theory that if you add the numbers that match the letters in your name, you can change your personality,” she said. “I worked out that if you added an ‘s’ I would have an incredibly exciting, interesting life and nothing would ever be boring. It’s that simple.”
This week, her life duly become more exciting.
A licensed pilot, she had charged taxpayers more than $13,000 (€9,200) to personally fly chartered planes to attend to government business, when taking a commercial flight would have been far cheaper.
Ley also took 27 taxpayer-funded flights to the Gold Coast in Queensland (spending 37 nights there) in recent years, sometimes to announce health funding that would have been far more convenient to unveil in the capital, Canberra, or in her southwestern New South Wales constituency.
It was just coincidence her that partner (who often flew with her, also on the taxpayer’s tab) owns a business and an apartment on the Gold Coast. Two of the trips coincided with New Year’s Eve events.
But what set the ball rolling was her purchase, while officially on government business, of a $795,000 apartment on the Gold Coast.
She said it was an “impulse” purchase and she did not know she was buying it from a major donor to her party, the Liberals.
This, in the Australian vernacular, failed the pub test.
On Monday, Ley said she had done nothing wrong, an inquiry would prove this and she would soon be back in the health portfolio. On Friday, she resigned.
One of the few people to speak up for her was Bronwyn Bishop, which is help Ley could have done without.
Bishop was forced to resign as speaker of parliament in 2015 after it was revealed she spent $5,227 of taxpayer’s money to charter a helicopter to fly from Melbourne to Geelong – a distance of 75km – to attend a Liberal party fundraiser.
‘Blame anyone but themselves’
Bishop blamed socialists (and possibly alcoholics) for Ley’s troubles. “There are socialists out there who want to attack free enterprise and anyone who sticks up for it. And I know that socialists, like alcoholics, will blame anyone but themselves. And whereas alcoholics can damage their own families, socialists can destroy the whole country.”
In her convoluted way, Bishop was blaming the Labor Party for leaking details of Ley’s extravagant travel and impulse buys, but it’s more likely a fellow Liberal hoping to be promoted in a resulting cabinet reshuffle was responsible.
The damage caused by Ley and subsequent revelations of questionable travel by other ministers might have been contained were it not for the stark contrast with how people on the opposite end of the income scale are being treated.
Centrelink, the government’s welfare agency, has begun using an automated system – with drastically reduced human oversight – to send debt notices to people it says owes them money. But many of these letters have been sent to old addresses, meaning people are unaware there may be a problem.
Some notices include wildly wrong earnings figures, employers counted twice under slightly different names, and yearly income inaccurately averaged out to fortnightly increments. All this is happening despite internal analysis showing 15 per cent of detected discrepancies were not actually debts.
With distraught people calling its helpline in a period when many staff are on holidays, Centrelink took to Twitter to refer welfare recipients concerned over debt letters to Lifeline, a 24-hour crisis support and suicide-prevention service.
Turnbull finally emerged from his break on Friday, thanking Ley for her service and saying she made the “right judgment” in resigning.
Tony Abbott, whom Turnbull deposed to become prime minister in September 2015, will fancy his chances at another go in the top job.