Much like 2016 to beloved celebrities, or quiet Friday night drinks to one’s brain cells, travel allowance can kill even the brightest of political careers.
A slew of politicians, new and incumbent, have fallen victim to the white form. The Department of Finance should probably consider a public service announcement featuring Hugo Weaving and Pia Miranda.
But what is with this little form that causes so much death and destruction? How does it all go so horribly wrong? When will the madness end?
The Parliamentary Travel Allowance form is suspiciously simple-looking statutory declaration. It features several columns; travel details – simply where a politician flew and when – and then the dreaded travel allowance claim columns.
To claim an allowance for a night away, this deadly section requires unwitting MPs to list the type of accommodation (there are different rates for staying at the local Hilton or your interstate mate’s couch), the start date of the claim and the number of nights you were doing your parliamentary thang.
Further, a travel allowance clause must be selected and the reason for the claim.
There is an inordinately long list of clauses that an MP can cite on their form; ranging from Official Business (the go-to for all manner of sin) to attending parliamentary committee meetings or business (usually staying in random regional town #432) and even meetings other than in Canberra of a parliamentary party, its executive or committees or attendance at the National and State conference of a political party of which you are a member (to bring on back good times, obviously).
Then comes the clincher, it requires the minister, member or senator to sign the form. The death blow.
If you listen to former members like Bronwyn Bishop, an authority on the judicious use of entitlements, staff could be at fault for incorrect declarations. Federal office-bearers are too busy to deal with such trivial matters as the expenditure of public funds.
Speaking with Sky on the white form’s newest victim, Sussan Ley, Chopper Bishop suggested that staff get paid to complete these forms for their bosses.
Fact check: True.
Staff often complete these forms at their boss’ direction. This is typically undertaken by a battle-axe office manager who is well-versed the rights and wrongs of entitlements and likes to remind staff about them constantly.
Might they make a mistake? Well, it’s politics, the ultimate source of human error.
However, this noxious form is then signed by said elected member. It is their responsibility to check and assess the appropriateness of a claim.
They are the ones putting their name and long-crafted political careers to it. If ‘meetings with stakeholders’ actually meant ‘drinks with major donors’ then think it through. If ‘site visit’ was more like ‘grand final with the boys’ then err against. If ‘media announcement’ also meant ‘impulse-purchase an investment property with my husband’ then perhaps reconsider.
Like drunkenly texting an ex or attempting a dirty joke in the workplace, when in doubt leave it out.
In a world where an MP entitlement scandal will always have a place in the paper, Members must be diligent. They need to get these things right. The political cost always exceeds what might come out of their own wallet.
After inappropriate helicopter trips, family trips to major sporting events and now real estate misadventures, the ‘this travel falls within the official regulations, you guyssss’ excuse doesn’t really cut it anymore.
Ministers, Members and Senators, get thee to a pub.
Robert Campbell is a pseudonym for a sometime ministerial adviser.