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Public entitled to its outrage at parliamentary entitlement

The word “entitlement” sprang to public notice in early 2014 when then Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey declared the “the age of entitlement is over, and the age of personal responsibility has begun”.

Of course, the word entitlement means different things to different people.

From a basic humanity viewpoint, it means access to clean water, clean air, food, health care, age care and education – the essentials of a healthy society in which government should have a role.

From a parliamentary point of view, it means access to closely guarded privileges and special treatments not available to the hard working Australian families whose votes parliamentarians seek.

Even the word “entitlements” in a parliamentary context indicates an exclusive prerogative for the political class. Any scandal surrounding the misuse of public money by politicians is dismissed as “within entitlements”.

When Barnaby Joyce was recently asked about MPs keeping any unspent portion of their electoral allowance, he replied “no employee stands back and says they are not entitled to what they are being paid”. The word entitlement was used as a defence for the privilege to have public money at his disposal.

And bear in mind the electoral allowance is subject to negligible scrutiny and transparency.

It’s this type of attitude that continually erodes any public goodwill towards parliamentarians. (Giving the new tax cut bill the politicised PR stunt name “Treasury Laws Amendment (Tax Relief So Working Australians Keep More of Their Money) Bill 2019” helps the credibility and dignity of no one involved.)

I concede that the life of parliamentarian is hard; on their time, their family and their health.

But when Joyce went to on to say he could make more money as an accountant than a MP, and good pay is necessary to get the best people in politics, his credibility in this argument diminished greatly.

Not to single Joyce out here – last year Liberal Party Senator Stuart Robert was embroiled in a controversy about his home internet bill (the payment of an MP’s home internet being part of their entitlements).

Robert (who has a Master’s degree in IT) was spending 20 times more than any other MP on his home internet – and blamed “connectivity issues” for the average of $2,000 per month he was charging the taxpayer. That the spike in data usage coincided with his wife (a pastor at their local evangelical church) commencing a Christian TV streaming broadcast is of course a coincidence.

When this excessive use of his entitlement came to public notice, Robert quietly paid the government nearly $38,000 for excessive internet data, offered no mea culpa, and kept his job.

No penalty for misuse of public funds, just pay back some money and nothing to see here.

The other entitlement worth considering is the post-parliament career.

Former senior Liberal cabinet minister Christopher Pyne left Canberra at the last election after 26 years in public office. Over the past three years he was Minister for Defence Industry, and then Minister for Defence.

In an apparent violation of the 18 month period which bans former ministers from lobbying or advocating for companies in the field in which the minister dealt with while in office, Pyne quickly landed a role with one of the Big 4 consulting companies Ernst and Young. The firm is looking to expand its consultancy business into the defence industry, particularly given the government’s budgeted $200 billion military spending spree to 2026.

Again, I concede the parliamentarian can have a life outside of politics and a job after Canberra – but what are Ernst and Young employing Pyne for? It is obviously not for decades-old experience as a junior solicitor or a staffer to Amanda Vanstone. It is for his inside knowledge and access to the inner workings of government and their defence contracts – precisely what the 18-month ban is meant to avoid.

But just as there is no sanction for Robert misusing public money, there is no power to impose any penalty. The system is in essence self-regulating, and as with all self-regulating systems the incentive to comply is negligible and the players can carry on with impunity.

In any other field the misuse of money is a sackable offence at best and a criminal act at worse.

At a time when public polls confirm a collapse in trust of politicians and institutions, the political class needs to be held to account more than ever and enforceable punishments must exist.

The Australian public is entitled to nothing less.

Greg Smart

By his own admission, Greg Smart was born 40 years old and is in training to be a cranky old man. He spends his time avoiding commercial television and bad coffee.