Politicians spent $8.7m of your money to get elected

News Corp Australia
1st May 2018 5:00 AM
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FEDERAL politicians exploited a loophole to spend an extra $8.7 million to bolster their election chances.

The windfall was on top of more than $62 million taxpayers paid politicians for first preference votes they received.

A NewsRegional analysis of all 280 MP and senator expense claims lodged after the 2016 election found sitting politicians used a taxpayer-funded printing and communications fund to increase their public visibility and increase their chance at re-election.

The multi-million-dollar boon was not available to those challenging sitting politicians and was on top of $19 million claimed at the two prior elections.

It is an issue neither relevant Federal Government or opposition spokesperson would comment on.

Former Liberal leader John Hewson dubbed the practice "an abuse" and called for the allowance to be capped during campaign periods.

Nick Xenophon Team senator Rex Patrick said misusing taxpayer funds to "get elected" must stop.

Why the allowance exists

The fund is meant to allow politicians to communicate with their constituents throughout the parliamentary term.

But NewsRegional's investigation has revealed about half of all parliamentarians claimed between 60 per cent and 100 per cent of their entire 2016 allowance during the six weeks of the election campaign.

There are no rules against using the printing and communications expense during the election despite it giving sitting MPs a pot of money to raise their profile - an option challengers do not have.

Current rules only prohibit politicians from using the expense to fund how-to-vote cards or soliciting for donations.

A 2016 independent report recommended increasing transparency about election-period claims to reduce misuse during election campaigns.

The government-commissioned report, An Independent Parliamentary Entitlements System, recommended against an outright ban on using the allowance for "electioneering".

It said a ban would be "difficult and arguably unnecessary" to implement as "a parliamentarian's performance of his or her duties will necessarily accrue some benefit to his or her candidacy".

A different review in 2010 recommended parliamentarians be banned from using the entitlement during campaign periods.

Dr Hewson, who was opposition leader from 1990 to 1994, said using the allowance during election campaigns should be capped and called for its use to be reviewed.

"The intent of the allowance is pretty clear - it's to communicate with your electorate during the term. If you've got to catch up during the campaign period then you haven't done your job," he said.

"If there is going to be a review of parliamentary allowances then this should be included.

"I think they should say only a certain amount can be spent during the campaign period."


Former Liberal leader John Hewson at the Ntional Press Club in Canberra, Tuesday, May 16, 2017. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas) NO ARCHIVING
Former Liberal leader John Hewson. MICK TSIKAS

How some politicians use the entitlement

Kennedy MP Bob Katter was Queensland's highest claiming parliamentarian, spending $98,085 during the campaign. He claimed $16,588 during the rest of 2016.

Former Liberal MP Russell Matheson topped Australia, claiming $153,715 during the election and just $202 for the rest of the year.

Despite the massive spend Mr Matheson lost his once safe seat to Labor.

Nine politicians used the allowance only during the election period - independents Glenn Lazarus and Ricky Muir, Liberals Dennis Jensen, Sean Edwards, David Johnston and Wyatt Roy and Labor politicians Richard Marles, Jenny McAllister and Anne McEwen.

Twenty-six politicians spent more than 95 per cent per cent of their allowance during the campaign.

Only three parliamentarians who stood for election did not use the entitlement during the election - now-resigned senator Nick Xenophon, Northern Territory Nationals senator Nigel Scullion and Victorian Labor MP Michael Danby.

Nick Xenophon Team senator Rex Patrick said using so much on just an election campaign was inappropriate.

"It needs to be flexible but there is a difference between an important issue and using taxpayer money to get elected," he said.

Mr Patrick suggested a monthly cap on how much could be claimed might prevent the fund from being used heavily in campaign periods.

He said parliamentarians had an obligation to treat taxpayer money with respect.

Special Minister for State Mathias Cormann declined to answer questions about the printing and communications allowance.

The government introduced new entitlement guidelines after a series of travel expense scandals. All claims must now be for the "dominant purpose" of conducting parliamentary business and must provide "value for money".

Similarly, shadow special minister for state Don Farrell did not respond to questions on the entitlement's use and if the opposition supported changing it.


Nick Xenophon Team Senator Rex Patrick during a division on the Regional Investment Corporation Bill in the Senate chamber at Parliament House in Canberra, Tuesday, February 6, 2018. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas) NO ARCHIVING
Nick Xenophon Team Senator Rex Patrick. MICK TSIKAS

University of Queensland law professor Graeme Orr said recent changes following an inquiry into politicians' travel expenses meant all allowances must be used in "good faith".

He said this was designed to stop the allowance being abused - but using the communications allowance during elections had not been banned and there was no obvious penalty for breaching good faith provisions.

"It just issued a 'principles-based approach' to MP resources. The new 'good faith' principle would now be breached by an MP squirreling money - intended for year-round outreach - to use as election period ammunition," Prof Orr said.

He said a "clear caretaker rule" could be used to ensure the allowance was only used for legitimate electorate business during a campaign.

Scandals are turning voters off the major parties

A Grattan Institute report found entitlement misuse had turned voters away from major parties and fuelled a rise in "protest politics".

The political think tank's "A Crisis of Trust" report found voters, especially those in regional communities, were increasingly sceptical of politicians and their behaviour.

"The failure to implement significant reform to donations, politicians' entitlements and post-political employment, despite the issues raised over the past few years, reinforces distrust," the report said.

"Trust has also been eroded by the perception that politicians don't always use public funds in the public interest. Public cynicism about politicians and their motives is fed by stories of MPs abusing their entitlements and appointing their former colleagues into generously paid, taxpayer-funded roles.

"Parliamentary entitlements are significantly greater than those provided to employees of other organisations, and stories about their abuse have been prominent in recent years."

The report found this was one factor that led voters to turn away from the major parties, instead opting for parties like One Nation, the Nick Xenophon Team and other minor parties promising to "clean up Canberra". - NewsRegional