The licence to thrill (oneself)


Keep calling it an entitlement and pollies will develop a sense of it; call it an allowance instead to signal we allow them certain things in certain circumstances.

No, I don’t seriously believe that semantics is the key to solving the perennial problem of politicians spending taxpayers’ money on themselves in questionable ways, which is in the news again with the resignation of one Cabinet Minister already and shadows hanging over several other government and opposition members and senators.

I also don’t have any other magical solutions. Having watched the system from the inside for 16 years I don’t even have strong opinions either way, defending or condemning our elected representatives outright in a wholesale and absolutist way. I find some validity in arguments from both sides.

Any system is only as good as the people who use it. Historically, one of the key differences between the left and the right has been the way they view human nature. The former have been generally on the more optimistic side, whereas the right, no doubt influenced by Christian theology of the original sin and the humankind’s fallen nature, tends to be more sceptical. As James Madison wrote in “The Federalist Papers”, “if men were angels, no government would be necessary.” The corollary of that is that the government won’t be composed of angels either, which makes it important to human nature-proof it as much as possible, for example by diffusing power, as the American Founders had designed their Republic. Another way, more pertinent here, is to minimise the opportunities for graft, corruption and misuse of power and government resources. If politicians were angels, they wouldn’t need taxpayer-funded airplane trips but only own wings to fly to their choice destinations, and all that.

I don’t believe that the “abuse” of entitlements (particularly relating to travel) is particularly general and widespread throughout the Parliament. I believe that many politicians do the right thing, either out of their own inner moral sense, or because in the end they don’t want to be caught in the next scandal – the few hundred or a few thousand dollars’ benefit is just not worth it in the greater scheme of things (a variant of “my kingdom for a horse” in a sense of “I’ve lost my ministerial kingdom because of a questionable horse-ride I billed the Department of Finance for”). But there is no denying that, sadly, many people go into politics for wrong reason, seeing it as a combination of an ego-boost and a junket. Others start with all the good intentions but develop the sense of entitlement down the track; sometimes to accompany the growing sense of self-importance, sometimes out of sloppiness, and sometimes as an aspect of the “poor me” syndrome (“people out there don’t understand how hard my life as a politician really is; I deserve some fun once in a while”).

On that last point, while my heart doesn’t generally melt at the tough daily plight of our pollies, I will without hesitation defend them from never-ending populist assaults by the know-nothings who think all our members and senators are a bunch of grossly-overpaid, useless nitwits. I will do so not just on the relative grounds – why don’t you travel a bit around the world and discover how comparatively well our country is governed? where would you rather live? which other country do you hold as an example to follow instead? – but also in the absolute terms: yes, the politicians are paid at least three times the average wage with some extra perks on top of that, but it is by and large a tough job with a crappy lifestyle, involving long and irregular hours, spending one third of your year in Canberra away from your family, and constantly listening to people tell you what a grossly-overpaid, useless nitwit you are – and hundreds of other gripes. You couldn’t pay me enough.

In the end, you will find that most of the abuse of entitlements is well within the entitlements. You want less of it, you need to change and clarify the guidelines, which can at times be too vague and therefore too open to stretching without necessarily breaking. For example, narrow the scope for politicians travelling on official business to stay on longer for pleasure. Or reduce the dozen or so different personal and office allowances (travel and accommodation, publications, software, newspapers, stationery, postage, etc.) to a general one of a lower overall value, allowing each elected representative to decide own priorities instead of creating incentives to max out each account, regardless of need or interest.

People in private sector often get away with far worse, but there will always be more scrutiny on politicians, because they are doing it with our money as opposed to the shareholders’. This might not be fair but it’s the reality. Our politicians might not be angels, but (for most part) they are not demons either. The trick – and it is the trick – is to re-design the entitlements/allowances system without treating its beneficiaries as teenagers who are just about to discover the keys to the car and the liquor cabinet, but as adults with weighty responsibilities and a complex work-life schedule, who need to know in clear and unambiguous terms where they stand.