29/10/2009 - 00:00

Buswell brouhaha a storm in a teacup

29/10/2009 - 00:00


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IT is with some trepidation that I leap in to defend politicians & allowances in the wake of a $240 mistake by Treasurer Troy Buswell in claiming for accommodation in Perth.

IT is with some trepidation that I leap in to defend politicians’ allowances in the wake of a $240 mistake by Treasurer Troy Buswell in claiming for accommodation in Perth.

Firstly, pollies are such fair game that it is like defending the indefensible when you try to go against the tide of public opinion on such matters.

Secondly, I am presuming this error is isolated and not part of some wider rorting, which I believe is inexcusable.

If, as I hope, last week’s ‘revelation’ was a one-off mistake, then the reaction was extraordinary. Errors of this magnitude are simply not worth the newsprint or airtime.

Ironically, Mr Buswell’s boss Premier Colin Barnett described this as a serious offence. I believe the only thing serious about it, if it is indeed a mistake, is the political consequences. For any other executive at similar level, such a piddling amount mistakenly claimed would simply not be an issue.

The Buswell matter raises the perennial question of the allowances system, often criticised in knee-jerk fashion without any proper analysis of the logic behind it.

I’m the first to object to rorts or perks that are abused or outdated, but most exist for a good reason – ensuring the cost of representing the community is equitable. I certainly believe that allowances, both the amounts and the way they are managed, ought to be kept up to date.

At first glance, many might find the idea that a politician receives as much as $30,000 a year to help pay off a second home objectionable.

In the UK, where this issue has cost the heads of numerous politicians and tarnished the whole of parliament, the rorting of allowances has rightly become a major issue.

That is because the expenditure became ridiculous, with public money used for extraordinary purposes such as having moats cleaned. Furthermore, extensive deception took place to make the claims in the first place.

But does that make the funding of parliamentarians’ accommodation wrong? I don’t think so.

From the outset, let’s make it clear that those in regional areas – including Busselton where Mr Buswell hails from – make big sacrifices to represent their communities in parliament, conveniently located near the bulk of metropolitan politicians.

It is only fair that they be compensated for having to stay in the city. Most would argue that 120 days’ compensation is inadequate for the amount of time they actually spend in Perth; so perhaps the allowance should be extended.

Some seem to believe that such compensation ought to be spent in hotels rather than, in the case of Mr Buswell, helping him cover a second mortgage.

One of the wittier suggestions from my colleagues was that Western Australia should invest in a parliamentarians’ dormitory for those staying in Perth. Can you imagine?

Humour aside, it’s all very blinkered. Like many bureaucrats, Mr Buswell is offered a set amount of money to spend on accommodation; for fairness and efficiency; that is the best system.

If he can do better than the going rate, good luck to him. I’m sure that owning a house, and being able to return to his home away from home at any time, does more than just save Mr Buswell money.

If anyone believes living out of a hotel room is good for functioning as the state’s treasurer, go and try it yourself.

The public is certainly no worse off under such a system. Only hotel operators could complain about it, but they can’t match the non-monetary value offered by owning your home.

In many ways, Mr Buswell’s decision to put his own capital in buying a house, assisted by an accommodation allowance, is a vote of confidence in our housing market.

I’d be far more fearful if our treasurer thought it was better value to stay in a hotel than invest in land in our state.

All a bit rich

LAST week, The West Australian newspaper took a pot shot at the credibility of WA’s most highly regarded restaurant gongs, the Gold Plate Awards.

The paper argued that the awards lacked credibility because entrants had to nominate themselves and pay to enter. Furthermore, many of the leading restaurateurs simply ignored the awards even though many were past winners.

While it is fair to suggest that the nomination process is an issue, it is worth asking is this the chicken or the egg? Numerous awards have a self-nomination option, including a number of popular programs like our WA Business News 40under40 Awards, the 2010 version of which was launched two weeks ago. I would argue many such awards have plenty of credibility.

On the flipside, Barack Obama didn’t nominate himself for the Nobel Prize but that doesn’t make him a credible winner. Fortunately, the Nobel awards are bigger than that questionable bit of judgement.

The real issue is not who does the nominating but whether the very best put themselves forward in cases where they have to. If they don’t, I’d argue it’s because they doubt the value of the awards.

Given the prominent publication of The West’s view, I wonder if that newspaper would extend that lofty approach to the awards it enters. For instance, its reporters vie for many of the journalism awards programs that are on offer, including the prestigious Walkley Awards.

Most such awards require self-nomination and a payment.

Just as The West queries the Gold Plate Awards, so too did we question the value of entering various media awards, especially those purporting to be focused on business reporting.

Too often we wondered how stories won the plaudits of judges as leading “business” articles when their links to business were tenuous. Not every time, I might add, but often enough to make us cynical about the cost and effort of entering.

This may be a case of spitting the dummy but, in the end, we simply stopped seeking local gongs and focused on awards programs that were more credible and better judged our performance against our peers.

Just as the nomination process hasn’t stopped The West’s journalists from entering media awards, the absence of its major local competitor in business reporting hasn’t prevented the newspaper from plugging its employees’ winning entries.

It will be interesting to see if this criticism of the Gold Plate Awards nomination process and their credibility will prompt the newspaper to revise its own standards when it comes to seeking awards.



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