TONY Abbott had only been prime minister for a few weeks in 2013 when the inevitable happened – his fledgling government was involved in a travel expenses scandal.
Two of his most senior ministers, Barnaby Joyce and George Brandis, denied any wrongdoing after using taxpayer funds to attend a wedding. Then Abbott repaid more than $1000 in taxpayer-funded travel he claimed to attend the wedding of former colleague Sophie Mirabella. He then repaid $600 he claimed to attend Peter Slipper’s.
Two years later Labor’s shadow treasurer Chris Bowen repaid taxpayer funds he claimed for flights for his family during school holidays, and a few weeks after that Australians watched in horrified glee as Bronwyn Bishop tried to defend the indefensible during the infamous “Choppergate”.
Now Sussan Ley is the latest in a very long line of politicians who have claimed expenses for primarily private pursuits, with only token “public” aspects to them.
Ms Ley says she claimed two New Year’s Eve Gold Coast trips in 2013 and 2014 because she discussed “the incoming government’s agenda around particular education and training issues” with a prominent businesswoman and Liberal Party donor at a New Year’s Eve event.
The former health minister hasn’t said why a phone call or an email couldn’t have done the job more efficiently than a discussion at a party at a five star hotel boasting “an ambience of pure glamour”.
In 2013 the then new Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull defended his Coalition colleagues, including Abbott, saying the rules on travel entitlements could be ambiguous.
It was “not uncommon to pay expenses claims back”.
It’s at this point we can’t help but compare the treatment of politicians caught in a travel entitlements “grey zone” of their own making, and the treatment of Centrelink recipients in a system that appears to presume guilt for alleged overpayments until recipients can prove otherwise.
Reverse these two scenarios and it’s easy to see why Australians are scathing of politicians who thunder about an age of entitlement and budget emergencies, while not touching what is their broken travel entitlements system – the one that’s so broken that, as Turnbull has conceded, it’s “not uncommon to pay expenses claims back”.
The age of entitlement isn’t dead, and neither is the age of cynicism.