Flat White

Parliamentary perks: entitlement versus inconvenience

12 January 2017

2:09 PM

12 January 2017

2:09 PM

Qantas planes sit grounded at Sydney IntThey say that if you want friends in politics you should get a dog, but if pollies want to find out who considers them a friend, they might be better off checking their colleagues’ expense claims.

The most recent expense claims scandal has once again called into question the classification of the many “glittering”, “luxury” and “gala[h]” functions politicians attend. It’s not a great look to be once again defending questionable entitlement claims at the same time the government is sending out thousands of letters to Centrelink benefit recipients.

Nonetheless, I for one sympathise with Julie Bishop’s decision to classify her attendance at the polo as work. I can’t think of anything more boring than spending a day watching sport with a bunch of models and socialites.

Less clear-cut for me, but more revealing, are the choices made by attendees of Malcolm Turnbull’s New Years Eve shindig. If I were Turnbull, I’d be looking closely at who expensed the trip and matching them up against my so-called allies in the party. It seems a pretty easy way to check who enjoys your company and who endures it.

Weddings are also a prime opportunity for finding out who genuinely likes you. Former Liberal frontbencher Sophie Mirabella’s wedding attendance expense scandal was a great case in point. The number of politicians who expensed their travel to that illustrious occasion could have given Mirabella a hint as to her future in the party.

The line is admittedly blurry. As someone who often has to go to functions for work, I have no sympathy with the tut-tutting view that politicians are just party animals of the common and garden variety.

Working a full day and then being fun at functions is hard work and exhausting. But many jobs require a social element; our culture demands that business relationships are extended outside the boardroom.

Often this takes the form of attending charity events and fundraisers. The causes companies support are beneficiaries of this form of business contact. Luckily these events can indeed be very enjoyable — some lucky people love their jobs. But it is still work and what’s more, it’s usually overtime.

Still, politicians spending public money have a special responsibility to be careful and accountable. Helicopter and light plane charters where a commercial flight would have done as well are the most obvious examples. Also, the frequency of Sussan Ley’s trips to the Gold Coast versus her journeys to other parts of the country are immediately suspect.

A wide range of solutions are currently being suggested by various parties, but mostly they just kick the can down the road in the name of “doing something”. They have included ICACs (which will be costly), real-time travel expense reporting (impractical) and various other (dis)ingenious devices.

Less favoured by the political class is a tool that the government is currently displaying the efficacy of, and which businesses of all sizes use as a matter of course: the inconvenience factor.

Centrelink is demanding money and people who can are paying up, because in a time equals money world, the inconvenience of disputing the claim outweighs the claim itself. In a mechanism based on a the same principle, businesses find that they can keep a natural cap on expenses by having staff pay the initial outlay, then seek reimbursement.

Firstly, people are more cautious in spending their own money, even when it is to be returned to them. Then they have to justify the expense by filling out a detailed claims form. Finally they have to scan in the receipts or physically submit the paperwork.

They do all this in the knowledge that the information and costs are going to be evaluated and possibly questioned before the money is reimbursed. Those are some powerful incentives to think along the way, rather than banging it all on the credit card and apologising later if the CFO picks up on something a bit too fruity.

Best of all, where staff members are careless or forgetful with their accounting they, rather than the company, wear the cost of their absentmindedness.

Barnaby Joyce has defended the inconvenience factor in the case of the Centrelink demands, saying that when the government pays out money “it’s taxpayer’s money, it’s mum and dad’s money, it’s somebody else’s who went to work, it’s somebody else’s endeavour”. Right on.

The recipients of “entitlements”, be they politicians or job seekers, should be exhorted to remember that at all times.

It’s time we put them on a claim now, pay later arrangement. I promise to be a generous boss to the political classes – as long as they get their claims in by deadline.


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