01/06/2004 - 22:00

He’s a spouse John, honest

01/06/2004 - 22:00


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JOHN Howard has wined and dined on his occasionally used nickname, ‘Honest John’.

JOHN Howard has wined and dined on his occasionally used nickname, ‘Honest John’.

But does he, as prime minister, and therefore the one most responsible for Australia’s good governance, deserve it?

True, his big-taxing governments haven’t thrown up the type of scandalous behaviour that was exposed during the Whitlam Labor years of the mid-1970s, when ministers were involved in searching for huge loans worldwide through suspect financial intermediaries.

Even so, our current PM has been less than meritorious in seeing costly publicly funded MPs’ international travelling properly policed.

Last week’s rumpus over South Australian Liberal backbencher Trish Draper’s accompanied European sojourn lifted the veil on this, with other similar cases perhaps still to be disclosed.

Although she, after more than a week of media publicity and earlier stonewalling of journalistic inquiries, announced she’d repay the $9,832 her photographer boyfriend, Derick Sands, had slugged taxpayers, the affair highlighted the Howard government’s sloppy administration of taxpayers’ money in this quarter.

Mrs Draper’s case was, of course, made less salubrious by the fact that Derick Sands has been under investigation for murder.

Nor was her defence enhanced by a report claiming she’d “confirmed another former partner, known only as Paul, was paid to look after her children at home while she travelled to Europe with Mr Sands as her nominated spouse”.

To date Mr Howard has been luckless with candidates for the coming election.

So far he’s found himself launching the political career of a wealthy WA Liberal candidate with financial ties to a drug trafficker and now a South Australian backbencher is exposed to having accompanied a police suspect overseas at taxpayers’ expense.

What next?

Inadequately highlighted by the media as the Draper-Sands affair unfolded was the silence of Labor leader Mark Latham, someone who invariably promptly responds when he sees a political point or two to be scored.

One can only speculate on the reasons for his silence on this occasion.

Could it be because he knows similar junketeering skeletons exist in Labor’s closet?

Why else would the ever shrewd, even if sometimes luckless Mr Howard have taunted Mr Latham in parliament thus: “Can I just say this to the leader of the opposition – perhaps he might encourage any members of his party whose circumstances are analogous to the member for Makin, to do what she had done and repay the money”.

A tricky ploy, true, but one suggesting Mr Howard knows of Labor MPs who have enjoyed Draper-Sands-style trips that they don’t want exposed because, among other things, they could be pressured into digging into their pockets as Mrs Draper eventually agreed to do.

What’s inexcusable, however, is Mr Howard’s failure to launch a comprehensive investigation into all such questionable travel practices over the past 10 or so years in order that junketeering MPs are exposed and required to repay what they owe taxpayers.

Is there a million taxpayers’ dollars at stake or is it even half a million?

Whatever the sum it should be retrieved, otherwise Australia has begun treading down the Banana Republic path, where rulers plunder national treasuries.

The normally talkative and pontificating Mr Latham clearly prefers not to see Labor MPs being identified, and so went uncharacteristically silent.

Why didn’t he demand that his MPs disclose if they were in a Draper-Sands predicament and, like Mrs Draper, similarly repay what they owe taxpayers?

Both Mr Latham and Mr Howard have, therefore, conspicuously failed in their duty.

The fact is that Labor and conservative party leaderships have been operating like a cartel in relation to a whole series of public areas – very liberally interpreted travel regulations being just one – to the material benefit of their parliamentary members for years.

Thankfully Democrat leader Andrew Bartlett, a week into the Draper-Sands affair, surfaced with the proper response.

He queried why MPs should ever take spouses on overseas trips.

A good point and one that many heavily taxed citizens have undoubtedly pondered on for years.

Mr Bartlett rightly added that such “research/study” trips were specific purpose ventures, meaning MPs undertaking them should go and do what they’ve applied to do and promptly return home to their electorates, not use them as ways of sneaking in holidays with spouses, partners, boyfriends or girlfriends, especially on the return legs of such accompanied trips.

State Scene has been told that such return legs can include stopovers at swish Swiss ski resorts and other swanky venues, though it has not been suggested such side excursion were charged to taxpayers.

Whether that’s the case, however, remains an unknown.

Now that MPs’ travel has again resurfaced and Mr Howard says he’ll tighten things up it’s perhaps appropriate to highlight another dimension of the travel perks question.

Regular State Scene readers may recall reference to what’s called the Members of Parliament (Life Gold Pass) 2002 Act, which qualifies retired MPs who have served 20 years for 25 (yes, 25) free domestic business class airfares annually, with spouses. And that’s for life.

Clearly this deserves being dubbed the Members of Parliament (Life of Riley) Act.

Moreover, after such MPs die, their spouses qualify for 10 free flights annually until death.

One wonders if Canberra’s already very liberal use of the words ‘spouse’ and ‘partner’ have begun to be applied to non-married lovers of retired MPs, as the Draper-Sands affair so clearly showed was being done by currently serving members.

Only a comprehensive investigation and overhaul of MPs’ travel benefits, something neither Mr Howard nor Mr Latham is unwilling to launch, will answer such embarrassing questions.


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