COMMENT: Our MPs haven't learnt much from Slipper saga

SPEAKER Bronwyn Bishop is yet another reminder that politicians just don't get it.

Her $5200 piece of triumphalism in taking a 75km chopper ride to a Liberal Party fund raiser is not an aberration. It's just another example of where the real sense of "entitlement" lies in this country.

Following the release for the first time in 2010 of fuller detail of MP expense claims I turned the spotlight on Peter Slipper, the Member for Fisher, who FOI searches revealed had recorded 17 incidents of over-claiming during a 10-year period.

His expenses claim for just one six-month period amounted to $640,000 and showed he had billed taxpayers $16,038.75 for taxis. In just 30 days his taxi and Commonwealth car bill ran to $12,000.

Despite the attention in the years following those revelations the spending behaviour barely moderated. Mr Slipper was convicted on three counts of fraud, findings he eventually was able to overturn on appeal.

The $900 involved in those matters represented a small fraction of the problems he had experienced with the Department of Finance since he served as its parliamentary secretary in the early 2000s.

Ultimately the attention on Mr Slipper's spending habits was diverted by the Ashby Affair and the two issues became entangled. There was never any relationship between the matters as far as I was concerned.

What bothered me was that a backbencher could charge the taxpayer more than the average household income of his electorate for ground and air transport and not have any explanation for the expense other than it was for parliamentary business.

I was surprised at the lack of interest in the matter among politicians.

Labor's Gary Gray was head of the relevant oversight committee at the time. His responses to questions never at any stage inspired confidence.

Ahead of the 2010 Federal Election when questioned Coalition leader Tony Abbott had been equally insipid, saying only that he expected MPs to act within the guidelines.

Those guidelines and the so-called Minchin protocol, which allows a Department of Finance examination of any doubtful claim and the opportunity to repay where the matter is not considered of sufficient concern to refer to the Australian Federal Police, are of themselves not the issue.

The problem, and it extends well beyond the use of parliamentary entitlements, is the apparent lack of ethical standards or appreciation of probity on the part of some of those we elect to represent us.

Only full and transparent scrutiny it appears can change that coupled with a no-nonsense approach to prosecuting those who transgress. The use of public money and the institutions of power, demand nothing less.

There was no grey area in relation to the use of a helicopter to attend a party political function. It is explicitly prohibited under the guidelines.

The idea that all is set right by the repayment of money when you are caught doing the wrong thing, is a concept that would be alien to most courts. Why then are politicians who more than sports stars are meant to lead, treated differently to a repeat shoplifting offender?

Of more concern though is the relationships politicians and political parties form with sector interests. These go beyond declared donations to political parties that are often trifling compared with opportunities created at the stroke of a government pen.

Claims of "commercial-in-confidence" and "cabinet confidentiality" often deny the transparency required of transactions that impact the public purse. The level of a playing field can only be measured if the entire surface can be seen.



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