The issue is not one of black-letter legality but ethics, if that concept has not withered away completely in the Australian parliament. Explanation, justification and excuse are utterly irrelevant in this case, and finally, many months after the report that was supposed to fix the Bronwyn Bishop problem was meant to be resolved, there is the prospect of movement.
Who says Malcolm Turnbull is indecisive, that he is a ditherer, that he is just a shadow of Tony Abbott? This time, he has pounced.
Once it became clear that Sussan Ley’s expenses were turning into a political liability, our fearless leader informed her that she had agreed to stand down from the ministry while not one but two inquiries could be implemented. And when the preliminary results came through and it became clear that Ley would never pass the pub test, Turnbull informed her that his resignation had been accepted whether it was offered or not.
It was all over within a week, albeit a week in which the media gleefully trolled through her and others’ affairs in the hope of unearthing a scandalous headline or two, and of course they have been amply rewarded. The public, as usual, has been righteously enraged at the arrogance and rapacity of their masters. But Turnbull acted reasonably promptly and has promised a swift reform of the system, which will placate at least some of the bloodlust.
The comparison with Abbott and the lamentable procrastination over despatching Bronwyn Bishop has proved a salutary lesson. Whether it was loyalty, timidity, pig-headedness or simple stupidity, the former Prime Minister buggerised around for weeks before informing Bishop that his resignation was accepted, whether it was offered or not.
There was a difference, of course: Bishop was a widely unpopular figure even within her own party and her transgressions were so blatant as to be politically unforgiveable. Ley is less disliked and, perhaps, less culpable. But the times – the demands for stringency, belt tightening to the point of indigence among the hoi polloi meant that a swift response was needed, and one was provided – at least for the moment.
The actual implementation of the promised reforms is yet to be seen, but the outline of less entitlements, more stringency over real expenses and above all greater transparency can only be a welcome, if seriously belated, improvement. That was the good news. But it was a bruising week to start the new year, and certainly not the one Turnbull would have chosen.
Whatever the outcome, the optics were terrible and Ley’s immediate response did not help. Her shopping on the Gold Coast, she insisted, was not a planned purchase but an impulse buy; but given that her impulse was to snap up not a $10 blouse from the local Op Shop but a $800,000 investment property with three bedrooms and ocean views it made her whim just a trifle more extravagant and improbable than that of the average punter.
Ley and all those so far exposed as rorting the system chorused vehemently that everything they have done was within the rules, and given that the rules are so confused, ambiguous and self-serving that they can accommodate just about anything short of serial infanticide, they may well have been right. But the declarations of innocence have all the force of defendants in the Nurmberg trials asserting that they were only obeying orders.
So bloody what? Whether true or not, that is not the point. The issue is not one of black-letter legality but ethics, if that concept has not withered away completely in the Australian parliament. Explanation, justification and excuse are utterly irrelevant in this case, and finally, many months after the report that was supposed to fix the Bronwyn Bishop problem was meant to be resolved, there is the prospect of movement.
Not quite yet – just what the proposed independent tribunal will entail and, crucially, who will administer it are the devilish details yet to be revealed. The likelihood is that the rules, or the guidelines as the miscreants prefer to call them, will not change materially but the interpretation of them will be a lot more rigidly enforced, probably at the hands of a retired judge or at worst a senior bureaucrat not longer beholden to his government’s masters.
But the key to it all is that the politicians will be forced to be more accountable, both to the tribunal which will also counsel and assist them to forego their more outrageous claims, and to the public. They will be named, and the threat of that alone will probably preclude the need for shaming, and almost certainly deter any risk of sanctions.
The politicians cannot not forever remain a privileged class, although, inevitably, they will resist fiercely; note Bronwyn Bishop’s rant about socialists as a harbinger of the resistance of those who may be forced to account for their indulgence. An early indication came from the Trade Minister, Steve Ciobo, who lamented that being forced to consume champagne and caviar in the corporate boxes of the MCG during the 2013 AFL grand final was just part of the job.
Well, if sporting events, parties and freebies are an essential ingredient of the arduous task of being a minister, at least the sponsors who lure compliant politicians to their junkets can pick up the tab – all of it, the travel, accommodation and all the other incidental expenses, not just the drinks and canapés.
Ciobo took the line that he is not invited to such events as Steve Ciobo, but as the Minister for Trade. Unfortunately at the time of the 2013 grand final he was not the Minister for Trade — he had only just been appointed as a lowly parliamentary secretary. Apparently his prescient hosts realised he was destined for greatness, and obviously he agreed with them.
But even now that he has reached the dizzy heights of cabinet, his benefactors must declare their largesse openly and promptly, as must the politicians who accept it. Then perhaps the long-suffering public will make their own judgements about the motives and worth of the exercise. Until now we have seldom known much about the comfortable arrangements until it is too late, and then only after some diligent ferreting from assiduous journalists. With any luck that will change.
As even the most avid reformers admit, you can’t legislate for morality. There will still be politicians who endeavour to wriggle through the loopholes. But at least the net will be harder to evade. Perhaps the silly season has not been wasted after all.
Mungo MacCallum is a veteran journalist who worked for many years in the Canberra Press Gallery.