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Ministers Cormann, Ciobo and Fifield at the football (image via bluemountainsgazette.com.au).

Turnbull's announcement of an independent agency to oversee parliamentary expenses is just damage control to maintain the Coalition's one-seat majority, writes John Passant.

A WEEK AFTER the story about her frequent taxpayer-funded visits to the Gold Coast broke, former Health Minister Sussan Ley has resigned from the Ministry. Good.

We socialists, according to well-known helicopter joy-rider Bronwyn Bishop, have had one victory. It might be Pyrrhic. Ley is still a backbencher on $195,000 a year plus allowances and entitlements.

Perhaps she is hanging around to top up her nice little nest egg (sorry, parliamentary pension) when she does not recontest the 2019 election. Her "retirement" at the age of 57 in 2019, with 17 years as a member of parliament, will entitle her to 72.5 per cent of her parliamentary salary, or about $145,000 a year. There will be an extra amount added to this for her time as a minister.

More likely, she is hanging on because the Turnbull Government only has a one-seat majority and because she is a Turnbull supporter.

It says much about parliamentary propriety that Arthur "I don’t recall" Sinodinos is acting minister for health until the reshuffle sometime this week.

It also says much about prime ministerial propriety that Malcolm Turnbull has so far refused to release the report into Ley’s expense claims, including her Gold Coast trips. We don’t know all the details associated with the trip, in May 2015, to Brisbane to announce PBS changes — an announcement which could have been made anywhere in Australia.

"On impulse", Ley tells us, she purchased a Gold Coast apartment from a Liberal Party donor for $795,000. She charged taxpayers $3,125 for what appears to me to be an essentially private visit, manipulated to give the impression of being work related.

Ley’s partner has a bin cleaning business on the Gold Coast, near the apartment. Ley made 27 taxpayer-funded "work" trips to this Australian Riviera in the three years from 2013 and claimed 37 nights of accommodation expenses. 

Prior to her "impulse" purchase, she had twice previously looked at another Gold Coast property on the market.

One could make the case that Ley spent a lot of time on taxpayer funds at the Gold Coast for private purposes. Certainly these activities, plus other evidence about her times on the Gold Coast, suggest she may have a case to answer not just to the public but perhaps to the police and the courts.

I am making no allegations. I am merely asking Malcom Turnbull if Sussan Ley’s expense claims have been referred to the Australian Federal Police (AFP) for investigation. If not, Mr Turnbull, why not? 

Could it be one rule for the rich and one for the poor? Or could it be that any criminal case against Sussan Ley, and others, if successful, might threaten the Turnbull Government’s one-seat majority?

Turnbull’s strategy is to protect the rorters and control the damage. Having put off any action on recommendations for dealing with parliamentary entitlements for almost a year, Turnbull has now announced an independent agency to oversee the expenses of parliamentarians.

Will it reject claims similar to those of Kevin Andrews, who billed us for $2,000 from his study allowance to attend a prayer breakfast and speak at a right-wing think tank in the U.S.? What about Peter Dutton and his $4000 dinner of very fine wines and food with ten others in the U.S.?

Calling it a working dinner, lunch, visit, or whatever, supposedly makes every politicians’ expenses claim okay. Getting pissed, eating fine dinners, going to prayer meetings, organising investment properties and "networking" at the AFL Grand Final in the National Australia Bank corporate box, where the bank covers the cost of your attendance, and the food and grog are free — all are work expenses, evidently. 

Minister Steve Ciobo justified his 2013 AFL grand final hardship posting and charging taxpayers $1,100:

"I'm sorry, but the reason I was invited isn't because I'm Steve Ciobo. I was invited because I'm the trade minister."

In 2013, Ciobo was Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer. He became Trade Minister in 2016.

Minister for Finance Mathias Cormann, was also one of the group of politicians in attendance. He is the minister responsible for parliamentary expenses.

According to the ABC, Cormann

... billed taxpayers $3,533 for airfares to attend the 2013 match with his wife.’

Even leaving aside the private/work distinction, ministers receiving freebies from a bank might raise questions about propriety. In my humble opinion, politicians should not be taking gifts from companies about which they might make decisions generally, or even, specifically.  

Then there is Julie Bishop and her more than $2,000 trip to the polo, and "official ministerial business" at five events including Derby Day, the Melbourne Cup and the rugby. We have Greg Hunt and his family holidays totalling $20,000. Mathias Cormann spent $23,000 of taxpayer funds on five weekend trips to Broome for him and his wife over five years. And this is before we get much more detail about the rest of the ministry, let alone Labor and Greens politicians.

Without making any judgement on particular expense claims, the mounting exposure of pub test failing claim after claim gives the clear impression to ordinary working Australians that the political system is corrupt, even if the politicians are all acting "within the rules".

What can be done? Well, I have a dream.

Let's refer obvious rorting to the Federal Police.

We could treat politicians’ expense claims in the same way that the government treats Centrelink recipients: guilty until the accused proves their innocence.

Let's ask all politicians or ex-politicians who have made expense claims in the last six years for all the documentation they have to prove their claims are legitimate. If there is no satisfactory response in three weeks, send debt collectors after them for all the unsubstantiated claims.

Perhaps we could employ experts to conduct a forensic audit of all parliamentary expense claims in the last year or two. That would give us a risk profile of who to further investigate in detail.

We could implement a process for travel and other expenses similar to that for public servants: the cheapest flight of the day saves money.

Instead of always travelling, Skype could be used much more often.

We could have politicians debate and vote via safe video link from their constituency, rather than travel to Canberra for a couple of days a week for 18 or so weeks in total in the year.

The $273 a night Canberra expense allowance could be abolished, and a dorm with meals in Canberra for ministers and others who have to travel there could be provided instead.

We could set up an independent commission against corruption, with strong powers similar to the way the government treats suspected terrorists. These expenses scandals amount to terrorism against democracy.

And, finally, let's pay politicians the average wage of about $80,000, or even the lower median wage, so they too know what the vast majority of their constituents have to survive on.

Then I woke up.

The reality is bad. There are 2.9 million Australians living below the poverty line, including 731,300 kids. Hundreds of thousands of Australians are now receiving what appear to be deliberately incorrect debt demands from Centrelink to repay money they do not owe.

This Government is all about priorities — the wrong ones.

John Passant is a former Assistant Commissioner of Taxation. Read more by John on his website En Passant or follow him on Twitter @JohnPassant.

Signed copies of John Passant’s first book of poetry, Songs for the Band Unformed (Ginninderra Press 2016) are available for purchase from the IA store HERE.

'Travel Scandal Deepens' via @channeltennews

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