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Broaden the mind at public expense

TRAVEL, it broadens the mind, mate, broadens the mind.

As with so many cliches there’s a grain of truth even with this one.

It’s partly because of that grain that I always hesitated objecting, even in private, to our 91 State MPs going off on their undoubtedly welcomed trips to fashionable overseas locations, and occasionally even around the world, all at taxpayers’ expense.

Most people would agree we need broad-minded MPs, not ignorant, parochial blinkered bumpkins.

To help ensure we don’t have such bumpkins there’s something called the imprest account, defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “money advanced to a person for use in state business”.

About 30 years ago, when Sir Charles Court was Premier, it was decided to institute it so MPs could make bona fide fact-finding trips related either to parliamentary business or their electorates.

An amount of money was set aside for each MP for the term of each Parliament, which currently stands at $19,135, meaning MPs could use up to that amount to cover the cost of inter or intrastate, or international trips over four years. And $250 per day is allocated to cover costs other than travel.

The four-yearly amount is cumulative over two parliamentary terms, so MPs not spending all in the life of a Parliament can use what’s left, over the life of one succeeding term.

MPs must apply to the Premier by setting out plans and intentions of imprest trips and they may take spouses. But one would be less than candid claiming the scheme has always been appropriately used by our lawmakers.

That’s why Premier Geoff Gallop is moving to revamp the rules.

It’s difficult not to encounter revealing cases about some past and current MPs’ sojourns.

For example, one, who it was known was considering producing specialist cheeses after retiring from politics, travelled to Europe to inspect French boutique cheese factories.

The trip was rationalised by claiming the electorate he represented

was either witnessing, or likely

to witness, an expansion in

boutique cheese manufacturing.

Another case had a humorous touch.

A now long-retired MP visited several European countries and the US to meet fellow MPs to discuss erudite points on parliamentary procedures. On returning, a colleague asked what the high point of his trip was, expecting to perhaps be told it was the US Congress, the Houses of Parliament, or the Bundestag, then in Bonn.

“Ya not gunna believe me, it was Disneyland,” the just-returned jet setter said.

As someone who’s spent a day in Disneyland I believe him, but it makes one ponder on the value of trips to study parliamentary procedures.

And there’s the MP who flew off to somewhere in the Caribbean, with wife, a regular practice for this gentleman.

The twist was that she flew to a swanky North American city where their son happened to be working.

This case received some publicity and I suspect the globetrotter still hasn’t twigged that it was a rather tough-minded opposition operative who leaked the details to the press to embarrass them.

That operative took a particular interest in this MP’s international treks because they were so frequent and so often involved being accompanied by his wife.

I suspect it’s this case that’s prompted Dr Gallop’s rethink. Perhaps he believes his predecessor wasn’t vigilant enough.

It’s also possible that it arose from the travelling habits of an MP who particularly enjoyed a stay in a hotel overlooking Zimbabwe’s famous Victoria Falls.

And there’s the legendary case of the two MPs with an interest in a local gold mining venture who flew to an Asian country they knew was looking to foreign interests to reprocess ancient gold dumps.

I’ve even listened to an MP brazenly complain about the transiting arrangements at London’s Heathrow Airport forcing him to cancel flying to the Faroe Islands. I later consulted my atlas on where they were – just south-east of Iceland.

One could go on.

Little wonder one meets so many voters – especially low-income earners – who complain about politicians.

With that said, however, it should be added that parliamentary travel not only may broaden some minds but can also have beneficial effects on WA.

The case I quote when arguing this is of the MP who visited several natural gas producing Canadian provinces and US states to investigate their gas pricing and regulatory practices.

On returning he was, to use another cliché, a full bottle on this subject and the knowledge gained was markedly felt in the drawing up of the legislation WA now has.

As a result, mining and mineral processing companies in his electorate and beyond will, over coming years, benefit by hundreds of millions of dollars, meaning more jobs – direct and indirect – and WA being more competitive internationally.

Unfortunately the many cases of travelling not for public benefit have affected the voters’ perception of those MPs who have used this paid travel for proper purposes.

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