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OPINION: Imagine the anger over 3450 Bishop chopper trips

Bronwyn Bishop created a national outcry after spending $5000 on hiring a chopper.
Bronwyn Bishop created a national outcry after spending $5000 on hiring a chopper. Contributed

WHEN then-Speaker of the House Bronwyn Bishop was reported to have spent more than $5000 on a chopper flight from Melbourne to Geelong, there was a mass public outcry.

It contributed to then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott eventually sacking her from the role, and in part to his own political demise only months later.

The episode was one of many scandals involving federal politicians' use of their taxpayer-funded entitlements, but too often the wider, systemic problems in the entitlements system go unreported.

The same applies to entitlements during election campaigns, particularly for printing and communications.
 

ENTITLEMENT SPENDING: A major Australian Regional Media investigation


The entitlement has long been used to boost politicians own campaigning efforts, as well as provide extra public funds for mail-outs, newspaper advertisements and pamphlets, on top of millions in public funds to reimburse parties for campaign costs and more millions in private donations to the major parties each year.

Today, APN Australian Regional Media puts real figures to the problem - revealing our politicians have spent more than $19 million of their taxpayer-funded printing and communications entitlements during the past two election campaigns.

That's the equivalent cost of hiring about 230 school teachers on an average salary for a year.

Or, put another way, at least 3450 chartered chopper flights between Melbourne and Geelong.

While not all our federal politicians are using the majority of this entitlement during campaign periods, our research shows a great many are. In fact, some spent more than $100,000 of their six-monthly claims in just six weeks leading up to the 2010 or 2013 polling day.

And here's the problem.

Their entitlement claims aren't outside the rules, which are vague enough to be exploited. But it does give incumbent MPs an unfair advantage at elections, and it also helps to keep minor parties and independent MPs out of parliament.

They don't have the resources of a major party, nor can they draw on the public purse like many incumbents do.

Unsurprisingly, on Capital Hill, there seems little appetite for change.

Why? Because over the years, politicians from both major parties, whether in opposition or in government, have exploited this loophole as enthusiastically as each other.

Our politicians do need this entitlement - it is essential for communicating with voters, providing information on grants, government programs or ensuring constituents know where to get help if they need to contact their MP.

But do they really need it during campaign periods?

The last independent review of the entitlements system in 2010 - the first in 35 years - didn't think so.

The system is one of several factors that undermines Australia's democracy because it encourages an uneven playing field and limits the diversity of voices we can have in federal parliament.

There is another review of the entitlements system now under way, ordered by Mr Abbott in the wake of the Bishop scandal and led by the respected Remuneration Tribunal president John Conde and former Finance Department secretary David Tune.

We have a new Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, keen to improve the quality of debate (and get the Coalition re-elected).

Perhaps he could take the initiative and end the practice of using our money to boost the re-election campaigns of those we elect to serve us.

In a 2012 speech, former Treasurer Joe Hockey told the Institute of Economic Affairs in London it was time to end "the age of entitlement".

It was a brave and worthy call.

But it should also apply to politicians who have many perks at their fingertips by virtue of their public office, and not just the rest of us striving to earn a buck, pay our taxes and get value for our
money.

Topics:  australian politics editors picks elections



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