There is much fertile ground here for a media deprived of the drip-feed of daily news conferences and leaks from ministers. They have to write about something.
150 members of the House of Representatives and 76 Senators burn through about $350 million each year in "entitlements" - that is additional to their salary and electorate allowances. Around half that "entitlement" is allocated to paying Members' staff, which leaves somewhere north of $160 million handed over to 226 MPs and Senators as taxpayer money, travel and other emoluments every year.
Labor, Fairfax, the ABC, The Guardian and much of the Twitterati-set have telegraphed their punches with enough clarity for Tony Abbott and his team to know this - expenses scrutiny will be one of the key daily topics taking up "mind-space" in the Australian community.
The times are good for them and bad for Abbott on this topic. Legions of Labor/union/government-body apparatchiks will go to taxpayer-funded jobs today to apply expert skills in the science of extracting every possible cent from taxpayer funded sources. The Liberals tend not to attract people educated in that profession. The Liberals are amateurs, Labor are professionals.
Professional rorters prosper and honest toilers focussed elsewhere are easily brought undone by the current system. Naive operators who "do what everyone else does" and submit expenses as they are and as they happen - rather than with an eye to "extracting value" - aren't hard to find and hang out to dry. A PM who jets off to a colleagues regional city wedding in the VIP plane is a rorter. A PM who employs taxpayer funded staff to go ahead and find an announcement to make in the regional city over the weekend of the wedding is not. Honest intentions do not matter and dishonest intent is often rewarded.
Keep in mind the issue of expense reimbursement is simply not an issue for most corporate and business entities. The test should be simple - is the expense reasonable and actual? If it is it's paid by the business.
Tony Abbott has acted hastily and has disadvantaged himself here by ruling out changes. He should jump on the issue and take and hold the high ground, out in the open, able to survey and return fire on all around him.
The current "entitlements" started pre-Federation when men from the Colonies were deciding on whether to join forces and become one country. Authority to pay them money they were "entitled" to starts in the Constitution. It's been added to, bit by bit, patch-up by patch-up since. At its heart it's a system based on defining what participants are entitled to receive, rather than a system set up to make sure the legitimate expenses of running a government are paid.
Most of us are used to online statements linked to credit cards and immediate crystal clarity on financial transactions. Tony should use that on taxpayers' behalf. Change the culture Tony from one where experts in the extraction of "entitlements" are advantaged, to a culture where your people who incur legitimate "expenses" in the business of government get the upper hand.
Tony Abbott's team is vulnerable here because they are on a battlefield defined by Labor. Most of Abbott's people are not psychologically attuned to this issue, their defences are not armed, they don't see the minefields ahead. While his ministers and staff are focussed on getting big things fixed, swarms of experts will be combing over unprecendent reams of detail on personal expenses they've incurred.
Last year the Auditor General Ian McPhee PSM gave a speech and said;
Another audit causing my name to drop off a few Christmas card lists for a while was the performance audit of parliamentary entitlements tabled in September 2009, which was the third time the ANAO has undertaken a comprehensive examination of entitlements provided to parliamentarians. The audit report drew attention to an entitlements framework that is difficult to understand and manage for both parliamentarians and the Department of Finance and Deregulation, a system that involved limited accountability for entitlements use and a relatively gentle approach by the department to entitlements administration. A positive outcome of this audit was that the government made some decisions concerning the reform of certain entitlements and agreed to a ‘root and branch’ review of the entitlements framework.
He is speaking of this 300 page report. It is a bottler. Read it and you'll understand our framework, the ill-defined entitlement to travel on "parliamentary" or "electorate" business and the sparsely defined "official business". Ian McPhee's teams find the hidey-holes used by professionals and tell us what happens in the UK, the US, Canada and New Zealand.
Kevin Rudd promised a "root and branch" review after Ian McPhee tendered this Audit report. Some changes were made to printing allowances (minor in the context of the relatively free-of-charge communications afforded by the internet) but the broader system of taking taxes from taxpayers and turning them into personal entitlements for parliamentarians has not changed at all. The entitlement mentality is central to Labor's fortunes and remuneration plans for its favoured few. Labor will get the optics right on pretend reviews but the real change can never come from a Left reliant on the free-flow from a taxpayer teat. This is their vulnerability.
Tony Abbott should get the job done now, for all our sakes.