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Politicians feign concern for cost-of-living woes but spend big

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(Cartoon by Mark David | @MDavidCartoons)

Many Australians, especially those struggling with the cost of living, will be appalled at politicians' spending, as recently released parliamentary expenditure figures show. Belinda Jones reports.

HOW MANY TIMES have we heard politicians of all stripes utter the words, “Australians are doing it tough”?

So often, in fact, that if Australians had a dollar for every time a politician says, “Australians are doing it tough”, we’d have a sovereign wealth fund greater than Norway!

Well, it doesn’t appear those same politicians are doing it tough.

This week, the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority (IPEA) released the Federal parliamentary expenditure summaries for October-December 2023. IPEA are working to overcome system upgrade difficulties which caused a backlog of parliamentary expense claims.

Once again, we are reminded of the eye-watering amounts of money it costs taxpayers to keep 151 Members of the House of Representatives, 76 Senators and former politicians each quarter.

Times these amounts by four for approximate annual amounts.

Going by these latest IPEA figures, you wouldn’t know there are cost-of-living concerns — some politicians are spending like drunken sailors on shore leave. This is particularly galling to Australians who have to tighten their belt, cut back in every area or go without, to businesses struggling to survive or anyone being forced by interest rates to curb spending to tame inflation while our Federal politicians appear to be immune to such constraints.

Other parliamentarians, to their credit, seem to have some grasp of the optics of moderation as an election approaches regarding expense claims.

To be fair, this latest tranche of data for the quarter does include the final two weeks of the Referendum campaign, which may account for some of the large printing and communications expenses recorded in this quarter. 

A couple of big spenders this quarter were Leader of the Opposition Peter Dutton and MP for La Trobe Jason Wood

The two were part of a trip “organised" by the India-Australia Strategic Alliance, which cost taxpayers over $43,000 and, according to an article by Rex Patrick and Philip Dorling, sent Australia’s High Commission in India 'scrambling to facilitate an imminentvisit by LOTO [Leader Of The Opposition] in New Delhi'.  

The article declares that the High Commission was 'first informed of Dutton’s prospective travel on 20 October'. This would suggest that the "official" part of the trip was an afterthought and not the primary purpose of the trip because it had already been organised. 

It further states the High Commission was given:

'... just five working days to sort out accommodation, logistics and, most challenging, appointments with Indian Government ministers and officials.'

Other politicians topping their expenditure categories include Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who claimed $1,038,156.93 in total expenditure for Oct-Dec 2023. 

The PM’s total expenditure for his first year in The Lodge cost taxpayers the following for each quarter:

  • Q2/2022 $1,027,804.28;
  • Q3/2022 $684,619.21;
  • Q4/2022 $699,168.58; and​
  • ​​​​Q1/2023 $751,224.90. 

To compare, for his last three quarters in The Lodge, Scott Morrison spent:

  • Q3/2021 $536,904.58;
  • Q4/2021 $509,500.46; and
  • Q1/2022 $666,962.55.

The cost to taxpayers for the upkeep of a prime minister seems to be increasing at about the same rate as a packet of Tims Tams is at Woolies or Coles at the moment —  inexplicably going up at an alarming rate. 

From October to December 2023, Senator James McGrath had taxpayers pay $26,062.98 for “SMS broadcasting and survey services”, which was about ten times the amount a number of his Coalition colleagues paid for the same thing during the last quarter of 2023.

MP for New England, Barnaby Joyce, claimed $350.00 in travel allowance, $2198.55 in airfares, $126.00 in Comcar costs, plus a $297.75 taxi bill for a trip to rural Tasmania to visit the local Longford Show last October. He filed it under “official duties”.

Joyce also continued his penchant for investing thousands of dollars in flags on the taxpayer’s behalf — $10,065.50 in the last quarter of 2023. This continues a long history of high claims for flags, which would suggest that New England is the most well-flagged electorate in the nation. By comparison, Joyce’s Nationals' colleague, the Member for Dawson, Andrew Willcox, appeared almost unpatriotic for spending just $3,597 on flags.

Demand is soaring for foodbanks with record numbers of first-time users, but at least they’ll be well-flagged if the Nationals have anything to do with it.

Parliamentarians’ "office administration" costs can vary extraordinarily among politicians and often don’t correspond to their positions in the party hierarchy. 

The October-December 2023 quarter saw two back-benchers in the top four:

Senator Ralph Babet seems yet to discover the world of Zoom because the Victorian Senator charged taxpayers over $2,000 to attend an obscure anti-drag queen event on the Sunshine Coast, Queensland.

He stayed for two nights — a video shows the event lasted just under two hours. Babet filed his $700 travel allowance claim under "parliamentary duties". Taxpayers also coughed up $698.68 each way for flights, $71.93 for taxi rides and $217.61 for parking, bringing the total to $2,386.90.

PHON (Pauline Hanson's One Nation) Senator Malcolm Roberts attended the 31 October Sunshine Coast event along with Senator Babet but did not claim any travel allowance. Roberts did claim $627.66 for return airfares from Brisbane to Rockhampton and $59.09 for parking for the same October 2023 event.

There is no rhyme or reason to parliamentarians’ expenses — they can rise and fall like the tide depending on the election cycle, but overall, seem to be largely unaffected by cost-of-living issues.

Parliamentarians are quick to complain if their political adversaries spend too much money, but rarely does their forensic auditing spotlight shine on their own expense claims.

And, it’s usually those very same politicians we see frothing at the bit when inflation data is released on 31 July, demanding Australians curb their spending to bring inflation down. 

Perhaps our federal parliamentarians should take a leaf out of their own book & Zoom a little more, travel a little less, learn to say "no" to invitations outside their constituencies and temper their inclinations to spend taxpayer money like... drunken sailors on shore leave. 

Belinda Jones is an IA columnist and political commentator. You can follow Belinda on Twitter/X @belindajones68.

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