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Coalition MPs lead the pack in leaning and entitlement

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Former Treasurer Joe Hockey (Right) with Finance Minister Mathias Cormann smoke fat cigars in 2014 (Screenshot via YouTube)

Politicians such as Joe Hockey – who ironically talked of 'leaning' and 'the age of entitlement' – have come to understand public service purely as an entitlement, writes Dr Kim Sawyer. 

Plato did not have a high regard for democracy. He argued that the politicians who win elections specialise in winning elections, not in governing. How prescient. However, Plato underestimated self-interest. Politicians have separated themselves from voters. They have come to represent themselves more than they represent us.

I was reminded of this recently when I read a series of articles in Nine publications on Joe Hockey, Australia’s outgoing ambassador to the United States. This self-promotion was like no other. Hockey was the man who had saved the U.S.-Australia alliance, who had become Australia’s Trump whisperer and was responsible for the only grass tennis court in Washington where senior members of Congress and military leaders could play. Hockey was so successful in networking that he has decided to stay in Washington to work in the private sector. Has there ever been such a self-appraisal?

Hockey is one of a long line of Australian politicians who leverage the public purse to benefit themselves. In opposition, Hockey made 13 taxpayer-funded trips to Cairns at a cost of more than $20,000. Coincidentally, he owned a farm there. He practised the art of "entitlement" early.

How could we ever forget his entitlement speech to the Institute of Economic Affairs in London in 2012 when he uttered those immortal words?

The age of entitlement is over...

...The problem arises however when there is a belief that one person has a right to a good or service that someone else will pay for. It is this sense of entitlement that afflicts not only individuals but also entire societies. And governments are to blame for portraying taxpayer’s money as something removed from the labour of another person.

Plato could not have said it better.

Hockey is also remembered for his first budget as Treasurer uttering these other immortal words:

“We are a nation of lifters, not leaners… We are a great nation.”

12 months later most of the signature policies of that budget had been dumped. The Medicare co-payment plan, the paid parental leave scheme and the changes to pension indexation were all rescinded. Hockey retreated from these commitments but not from the commitment to himself. He became our man in Washington. He was entitled.

There must be something about Washington. The former Ambassador Kim Beazley is also a man of entitlement. Beazley was Ambassador for six years. He had failed to win government for the ALP, but he did not fail himself. How can we forget his policy to roll back the GST? How can we forget that he signed the contract for the Collins Class submarines, which he described as one of Australia’s greatest engineering projects? 

Beazley, a lifelong Republican, was appointed Governor of Western Australia in 2018. Last year, former WA Government House staff blew the whistle on the excessive waste of taxpayer monies since Beazley became Governor. Beazley was undeterred. He spoke of the need to make the House as presentable as possible until Australia became a republic. He was entitled. 

Australian politicians like sinecures. Ambassadorships, chancellorships, directors of companies, consultants and lobbyists, they all know how to extract a private dividend from public service. They do it while in office. They do it when they leave office. The problem is many voters identify with that entitlement. As the May Federal Election showed, many re-elect politicians who have extracted more entitlement than most.

We need circuit breakers. We need politicians to be more accountable to us rather than to them. There is not much we should borrow from U.S. democracy except perhaps the town hall meeting. Town halls allow voters to question members of Congress when Congress is in recess. Town halls are effective. They put representatives on notice. When Trump tried to repeal Obamacare, Republicans had to face their constituents at town hall meetings. Why not here? Enable voters to give feedback at mandatory town hall meetings at the end of every parliamentary session.

Then there is the question of parliamentary salaries and pensions. Comparisons of politicians’ salaries across countries are fraught with problems, but a study of 32 countries last year showed our politicians to be the sixth highest-paid. The base salary of Federal MPs is $207,000 a year which is two and half times average earnings. Their earnings are not representative of voters. And most never travel on public transport except in the week before the election. 

A related problem is the generous parliamentary pension scheme. The formula is complicated and depends on years of service, the base salary of MPs and the extra for Ministerial roles. Retired politicians elected prior to 2004 are entitled to pensions well above $100,000 annually for life or a large lump sum. Nearly 500 politicians are in this category.

Julie Bishop retired on a yearly pension of $213,000, Christopher Pyne on $220,000 and Tony Abbott on $295,000. Taxpayers would save $350m if the government abolished some of the more excessive perks. There is also double-dipping when a politician taps into 50 per cent of the pension while serving in a public role. Hockey got a $90,000 pension while earning $360,000 as Ambassador, Kim Beazley a $100,000 pension while earning $450,000 as Governor. Politicians have come to represent themselves. They have come to understand public service as an entitlement.

One possibility is to limit the number of terms that a politician can serve. If we had fixed four-year terms, and require that a politician can receive entitlements for no more than two terms, we may limit the sense of entitlement. If we restrict the use of pensions while holding further public office, we may limit the sense of entitlement. As Hockey stated in his entitlement speech in 2012, the sense of entitlement afflicts our society. We must limit it to protect our democracy.

We should go further. The 1994 Senate Inquiry into public interest whistleblowing recommended a Federal anti-corruption agency. 25 years later, we do not have one. A Greens Bill to establish a Federal ICAC passed the Senate in September. The Federal Government did not support the Bill.

The Morrison Government has failed to release its own integrity commission legislation for consultation. They continue to stall. Revelations of $100 million of sports grants targeting marginal seats show why a Federal ICAC is needed, perhaps also a special prosecutor. Independent MP Zali Steggall has joined the many voices calling for a Federal ICAC. How many more are needed before those with entitlement respond?

Plato understood democracy but even he could not have foreseen the age of political entitlement. We need to return democracy to the voters.

Dr Kim Sawyer is a senior fellow in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne.

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