It’s ‘travel rort’ time again, and in a week the current fuss will be over. In my view these events should be seen in the context of the ‘abuse of power’, an example of the person’s not having a clear and consistent understanding of what his/her behaviour ought to be. The next example, I think, will be one of the new Ministers’ not having followed the Ministerial guidelines. Every Prime Minister since and including Malcolm Fraser has had to deal with a Minister in such a context — at least to the best of my memory — and I don’t think that Mr Abbott will prove to be an exception.
I don’t know where the impetus for the present fuss originated, but if it were someone in the Labor Party I would suggest that they leave well alone. The new Government will be able to generate all the information it wants about everyone’s travel expenses, and my guess is that on average both sides of politics are equally innocent/guilty.
I don’t think that there is a simple solution to any of this. Members of Parliament have an unusual job and a most unusual life. At what point do they stop work? One of them, Peter Reith, I think, said that it was a 24/7 life, and I would agree, having known a lot of MPs over a long period. There are rules, but all of them are built around words, and the words bear a variety of meanings.
An MP is there to look after the interests of his constituents and to keep a watchful eye on the government of the country. I cannot think of many events he or she might go to where the MP could not point to something done that would satisfy both of those purposes. I think the same would be true of Senators, though they don’t have a specific group of constituents other than the people of a whole State or Territory.
When I was a vice-chancellor, there was no meeting of any kind in my city where I would not be involved in a discussion of some or other matter to do with higher education. When I was later, for a long period, the chairman of a cultural organisation, there was no meeting where I would not be involved in a discussion of theatre, art, music or historic houses. Because those discussions were valuable to the organisations I represented, I saw the meetings all as work. Other might have thought I liked the free grog, or party pies, or whatever was being served.
I am a writer, with several projects on the way at any time, fiction and non-fiction. Theoretically I could argue that whatever I did was grist to my mill, and therefore the costs of my whole life were in a sense tax-deductible. Now the Deputy Commissioner of Taxation would certainly disagree, and in any case I would be embarrassed to propose such a thing. But I could probably construct a case that would serve, on the face of it, at least.
So what should be the rule? In my view each should act as an honourable person would act. If you want a sharper sense of fitness, I would suggest the MP’s being happy to see the request for a refund being published on the front page of the news paper with the highest circulation in the electorate. Some people are more honourable than others, and some have thicker skin than others. There’ll always be a squiffy one. The lead has to come from the top, and there, at the moment is the problem. Mr Abbott has not shown the right example.
If I had advice for the Prime Minister, it might be that he point out to his team the dreadful cost to the Labor Party of the Peter Slipper business, the Craig Thomson business, and even the Julia Gillard business. Maybe there was some spin in it all, and maybe some of it happened a long time ago, and maybe it wasn’t altogether to do with being a member of the Australian Parliament.
But the truth is that in public life your past is always waiting there to grab you. If whatever it is can be known, then someone will know it, and they will talk about it. In time a journalist will know it, and in time he or she will write about it, or the other side will get hold of it, or an FOI request will discover it. There it is, and you have to deal with it, quickly and efficiently.
The best procedure (if the allegation is true, or largely true) is to accept that you made an error, that you have made retribution, and that it will not happen again. It had better not. Bob Hawke followed that text in talking about his fondness for the grog. I think he was forgiven almost at once, and it was a necessary admission and decision for someone who was to be the Prime Minister of our country.
Mr Abbott has paid back items from the past, and admitted his error. It is not clear what his colleagues are going to do, but to me their present course is obvious. And there should be no doubt about what their future course should be.
Members of Parliament are given a great deal of freedom in deciding how they live their lives and how we support them financially. The system is supposed to work as though all are honourable, though that is never the case. Ambiguity in the rules is not a reason for finding and slipping through a loophole, but for deciding on one’s proper behaviour. OK, it can be hard, but again, the example must come from the top. The faster Mr Abbott comes to the right decision about that, the better for him and his Government.