07 August 2015
by Jonathan J Ariel

MSM and MP's Rorts...

Originally Published as... Federal Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority Act (2016)

One reason Australia's alternative media is gaining readers, but as yet is not swimming in revenues, is because many people – both on the Left and the Right - agree that what passes for political reporting in the MSM has gone to the dogs.

Folk lament that the MSM generally no longer covers real issues, but merely treat politics like a variety show. And a bad one at that.

Witness the reporting of what has been branded by the Leftist media as "Choppergate"; the lavish spending by the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Bronwyn Bishop on travel related matters.

Fairfax Media, many radio stations and even the Right's Melbourne megaphone, the Herald-Sun, focussed on her $600 flight from Kingsford Smith to Albury in southern New South Wales to attend the wedding of Sophie Mirabella, the former Liberal member for the Victorian seat of Indi.

If asking the hard questions was the remit of the MSM, surely the two-week $90,000 European extravagance - where at least half the time was spent by the Speaker arguing the merits of her application for the presidency of the Inter-Parliamentary Union - should have been the media's relentless focus 24/7.

But sadly it wasn't.

And while centrist Sky News reported on Federal Labor frontbencher Tony Burke flying his family business class to visit the Top End for a lovely holiday on our dime as well as passing you and me the bill for flying his mum from Adelaide to Sydney (for $1,360, or ten times a typical Virgin Australia economy fare), these stories were poorly reported by Fairfax and just ignored by The Guardian.

As for Burke's wholly unjustified $840,000 spend on sprucing up his office, don't expect the Left to report, let alone condemn one of their own. So you see, it isn't "reform" some in the media want. Political kills are what they want. And that's a shame. It reflects woefully on those who think they are journalists, when really they are much less.

Canberra's journalists have many of the same faults they've always had. Much of the coverage is slanted; some of it is juvenile and the quality of writing, patchy.

To many observers the pack mentality of the press gallery is to focus more and more on trivia and to sensationalise rather than analyse. Even when the issues under consideration are vital to ensure the public doesn't lose faith in the erstwhile concept of democracy.

To a great degree the public has already lost faith in politicians; no doubt 'bout that.

So where to next for a prime minister struggling to get on top of the rorts fiasco?

For a start, he can ditch any loyalties he may have that run counter to the unvarnished expressions of his backbench. Call it "flicking the switch to marketing". When they realise that's what the voters are baying for, the backbench will force a wide reaching inquiry into the travel rorts affair.

Second, the PM must realise that Sen. Nick Xenophon (IND-SA) is doing his best to ginger up South Australians against the Abbott government by threatening to run candidates against government members, posing in the first instance, a clear and present danger to the Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne in the seat of Sturt. And Tuesday's $40 billion spending promise to jump start South Australia's ship building industry may not be enough to appease Xenophon and his supporters.

Third, across the Bight, the Member for Denison, Andrew Wilkie (IND-TAS) is livid at Tony Burke's wanton expenditure and is demanding a comprehensive audit of all politicians travel claims. The former ONA analyst, understands very well the public's mood.

Despite the $40 billion price tag, Tuesday's bread and circus show in Adelaide is not a substitute for overhauling the entitlement rules.

So what's the Prime Minister to do?

Abbott could do worse than launch an inquiry to investigate the scope and depth of the costs, expenses and reimbursement trough into which politicians of both major parties happily dip their snouts and gorge like there's no tomorrow.

In addition, a new expenses regime should be established, promoting transparency and spelling out clearly what is and what is not a legitimate expense.

The inquiry's first order of business I suggest should be reading the Guide to MPs' Business Costs and Expenses, (7th Edition, 2015-16) published by Britain's Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA). This handbook explains what costs and expenses British members of parliament are reimbursed in performing their parliamentary functions.

Created by the UK Parliament in the wake of the 2009 MPs' expenses scandal, IPSA was given the remit and powers to introduce independent regulation of MPs' business costs and expenses and, subsequently, pay and superannuation.

IPSA binned the previous "self regulation" by MPs and replaced it with new rules that are fair to MPs and the public purse, are workable and crucially, are transparent.

When compared to the Australian situation, the Brits are very frugal indeed in the scope and quantum of what is allowed.

IPSA's guidance, read in tandem with the MPs' Scheme of Business Costs and Expenses, clarifies key aspects of the Scheme and puts it into context for MPs so there is minimal ambiguity as how it applies to MPs' day-to-day work. What can be claimed is straight forward as is the process for MPs to make claims.

Best of all, IPSA publishes claims, so that taxpayers can see how their money is spent in support of any particular MPs' parliamentary functions.

Tony Abbott, with great fortitude can make a silk purse out of this fiasco.

On 3 August the Australian reported that former Finance Department head David Tune and Remuneration Tribunal boss John Conde will undertake a fundamental review of MP travel entitlements.

This is insufficient.

The Tune/Conde Committee's remit must be much wider.

The snout dipping by politicians extends way beyond mere travel rorts.

While the PM has been egged on by Andrew Wilkie, Nick Xenophon and many members of the public, as well as some in his own party who sense the fetid smell of political annihilation in the air if Abbott shies from reform.

Abbott intriguingly has all the cards.

By draining the bottomless trough of entitlements, reimbursements and allowances which Australian politicians have feasted upon for too long, Abbott will be able to present his party's reform to the electorate as one of establishing an independent office of parliamentary standards which will extinguish the rorts once and for all,as well as name and shame those who hitherto failed to live up to the public's expectations.

Who knows? Playing his cards smartly may see FIPSA even helping him win the next election. God help us.