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We Should Spare No Expense In Working Out What Politicians Can Claim

It's inevitable there will be future controversies over claims for work expenses, particularly travel, until we have an agreed answer.

17/02/2017 9:51 AM AEDT | Updated 17/02/2017 11:13 AM AEDT

In my long career in business, I never had any trouble distinguishing between private and work-related expenses. If the primary purpose of a trip was to benefit the business, whether to increase profits, grow market share or enhance its reputation, the cost was borne by the business, which claimed it as a tax deduction. I was never personally liable for the cost.

It was immaterial if, during the trip, I visited my mother or caught up with an old friend. It was the primary purpose of the trip that was important. There was never any question of charging the cost of a holiday to the business, or of charging the business once I was no longer associated with it.

In theory, the same rules should make it easy to determine whether politicians are legitimately claiming work expenses when they travel at taxpayers' expense. If the primary purpose of the trip is work-related, no problem. If it's primarily private, it's a personal cost.

The problem with this, as I discovered upon transitioning from business to politics, is that there is no agreed definition of a politician's work. Sure, we sit in parliament and vote on legislation. We also listen to and help constituents and serve on committees. But with the possible exception of ministers who have responsibility for a department whose performance can be measured, the only true measure of our performance is how many votes we attract at election time.

And unless there is an agreed job definition, it is difficult to know what is a work-related expense. Parliamentary or electorate business, to use the correct terms, can be whatever you want them to be.

That inevitably leads to controversies such as we have just seen in relation to travel expenses, culminating in the resignation of Sussan Ley as Health Minister. Although many suspect the primary purpose of her trips to the Gold Coast was private, if they were indeed work-related, by what standard should we judge whether they were acceptable?

Andrew Meares
Former Health Minister Sussan Ley.

Following the controversial chartering of a helicopter by former Speaker Bronwyn Bishop, the Abbott government established an inquiry into politicians' expenses. I contributed to the inquiry, and was pleased to see some of my views reflected in the recommendations. The government took too long to respond, but at least it says it will implement all the recommendations.

Stefan Postles via Getty Images
Bronwyn Bishop discovered the Speaker's chair was an ejection seat after #choppergate

However, this will still leave the problem of knowing what is work-related. It is inevitable there will be future controversies over claims for work expenses, particularly travel, until we have an agreed answer. It is not acceptable to give public servants some kind of vague authority. What we need is a rational conversation about what we want from our politicians, and how much of that should be publicly funded.

Some argue politicians should not be paid at all, and indeed that is the policy in a couple of American states. Quite a few wouldn't run if that were the case, which some may say would be reason enough.

Others say we should be paid a higher salary but remain responsible for our own expenses. This would be great for politicians with small electorates near Canberra, but not so much for the member for Durack, whose electorate in Western Australia is bigger than Mongolia.

I believe democracy should be properly funded, but I don't want to see politicians charging taxpayers for living the high life or private activities.

Not a few argue our travel should be as cheap and uncomfortable as possible, as punishment for our myriad failings.

By one measure, the primary job of a politician is to get re-elected. Politicians can only vote in parliament, represent constituents and pursue their agenda if they are elected. Perhaps anything undertaken in pursuit of re-election could be viewed as work related, including campaigning.

Others argue the job is not so broad, being limited to advocating for constituents, serving on committees and in parliament. In that case, work-related expenses would be more narrowly defined. Because it would save taxpayers money, I'd favour that approach.

For myself, I act as if I am spending my own money, which means my staff and I travel economy except on long flights and we save money where we can. I also oppose taxpayer funding of political parties and of campaigning, whether by parties or individual politicians. I believe democracy should be properly funded, but I don't want to see politicians charging taxpayers for living the high life or private activities.

But a common understanding of the role of a politician, and the extent to which taxpayers are willing to pay for that, would benefit both taxpayers and politicians. And it would solve a problem I never had in business.

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