Cleaning out the political stables

By January 11, 2013Other

I had hoped not to hear the name ‘Slipper’ again, after the throwing-out of the Ashby case late last year. Like most people, I suppose, I strongly dislike grubbiness in an area where a high standard of behaviour is expected, and the longer that case went on the more dejected I became. The Labor Party had forgotten how Gough Whitlam got much more than egg on his face in 1974 by attempting to secure a Senate position for his Government in offering DLP Senator Vince Gair a diplomatic post.

Recruiting the Liberal Peter Slipper to act as Speaker of the House of Representatives, knowing that he had lost the confidence of his party, and was unlikely to secure re-endorsement, and knowing also enough about him to see why that had occurred, was not the smartest act of the Prime Minister, and she goes on having egg on her face as a consequence. The Slipper appointment will haunt her throughout the rest of this parliament, and will be used against her in the elections.

I had forgotten that the Commonwealth was still pursuing the question of Slipper’s use of Cabcharge vouchers, and the matter will come to the magistrates’ court shortly, though it may not have been resolved when the elections are held. It might sound trivial, since the sums involved seem to amount to about $1000, but in my opinion it is not trivial at all. It is alleged that the former Speaker used Cabcharge vouchers, intended for official use, for personal pleasure, to wit, visiting wineries near Canberra. The penalty could be as much as five years in jail, though that is quite unlikely to be the outcome.

The point is that he was the Speaker of the House of Representatives, a position of the second highest status in our country after that of the Governor-General. If you hold that office your behaviour must be of the squeakiest cleanliness, and if you transgress the matter is not trivial. The general rule applies, or should apply, to the holders of all positions of trust, not just those in political life. And by and large they do: judges tend to frown darkly on those who abuse positions of trust, and often hand down exemplary sentences.

We have had a textbook example of the abuse of trust in the House of Commons in Britain, where in 2009 the Daily Telegraph published details of MPs’ abuse of their entitlements. It was so widespread, and so bad, that some MPs did not seek re-election, and some who did were rejected. What had happened was that there had developed two sets of rules: the formal one, which no one much followed, and the informal one, based on new MPs’ discovering what others actually did, and following their example.

Our MPs, State and Federal, also have entitlements. I don’t myself think that MPs are overpaid, and politics is a chancy life. No one should enter it thinking that they should make a lot of money, but they are supported financially in all sorts of ways, quite apart from their salaries. To be an MP or Senator is to occupy of position of great trust, for they are the lawmakers, and they should take the law most seriously. I don’t want to sermonise, but I feel that Parliament needs to ensure that its own house is in order. If the Speaker can rort the system, what example is that for the rest? And how many follow the informal rules — ‘I wouldn’t do that, but this is OK’?

As it happens, our federal parliamentarians are obliged to certify that their usage of these various entitlements has been in accordance with the law, and the information about whether or not they have done so is published. Not only that, you can see how much each MP and Senator received in entitlements over each successive six-month period. Just go the Department of Finance and Deregulation and look under ‘Parliamentary Entitlements’. A cursory examination by me didn’t discover anything exceptional. Ministers cost more than ordinary MPs and Senators, both in salary and in expenses, but you’d expect that.

It all looks OK, but I wonder — and that’s the evil in rorting by the most senior parliamentarian of all. It makes you wonder about all the others. I have known many parliamentarians well over a long time now, and think that we are well served by them. But I do think that the Slipper case presents the present crop with the need to demonstrate they they take seriously the trust that they enjoy. The present Speaker is the person most responsible, and I think it is up to her.

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