Sussan Ley is refusing to comments on allegations she is involved in more dubious expense claims.
A TRIP to a holiday destination that facilitated the purchase of a luxury apartment, chartering private planes for trips at least six times the cost of the equivalent domestic commercial fare, and lavish parties with high-profile business identities are among the charges to the taxpayer that have landed sidelined-frontbencher Sussan Ley in hot water.
But these hardly rank among the most outrageous expense claims parliamentarians have had Australian taxpayers foot the bill for.
Taking advantage of loosely defined expense definitions and privileges rarely seen in any other line of work, our highest ranking MPs have made a habit of making claims most Aussie workers never dream of getting away with.
And it’s not just politicians who are permitted to take advantage of the loose expense guidelines, which the government is under pressure to rein in, but their families as well.
An MP’s spouse or “designated person” of their nomination is permitted three interstate business-class return trips each year, which a review last year acknowledged could be used “to undertake an interstate family holiday”.
Labor frontbencher Tony Burke was criticised when he admitted to flying his family business class to Uluru during the school holiday period in 2012 under the family entitlement scheme when he was caught up in his own expense scandal in 2015. He also had to repay a $94 bill for a Comcar trip he took to a Robbie Williams concert.
Around the same time, then Education Minister Christopher Pyne was forced to answer questions over more than $5000 in expense claims for a family visit to Sydney during the 2010 Christmas and New Year period.
Julie Bishop has defended $2716 in costs for a trip to an exclusive Melbourne polo match, saying she “was invited and attended in her official capacity as Minister for Foreign Affairs and deputy leader of the Liberal Party”.
Ministerial standards prohibit travel for private purposes, but allow travel when it is related to an MP’s office.
The guidelines, which the government has admitted must be strengthened, invite ministers to “be scrupulous in ensuring the legitimacy and accuracy of any claim for entitlement to ministerial, parliamentary or travel allowance”.
Former speaker Bronwyn Bishop’s judgment was called into question last year when she said she had done nothing wrong in chartering a helicopter to travel the 80km from Melbourne to Geelong to attend a Liberal Party fundraiser. After a public uproar dubbed “Choppergate”, she eventually repaid the $5227.
Another former scandal-plagued speaker, Peter Slipper, had to pay back $17,285 over a decade, including $7000 in family travel perks.
Labor senator Sam Dastyari was forced to resign from the frontbench last year after having an education company with links to the Chinese government foot the bill for a travel charge he “didn’t want to pay” after exceeding his parliamentary travel budget.
Victorian MP Steve Herbert was last year forced to resign as a minister and repay costs for using his ministerial car and driver to chauffeur his dogs between his countryside properties.
In one of the earlier scandals, the late Queensland senator Mal Colston famously took fights at taxpayers’ expense just so he could accumulate frequent flyer points.
Today, Ms Ley is under fire for a trip to the Gold Coast with her partner, on “official business”, where she also bought a $795,000 luxury apartment. A slew of other questionable expenses have emerged in the wake of this revelation.
Ms Ley also hit taxpayers with a $13,000 bill to charter private flights, which she piloted herself, along busy capital city routes.
Fairfax reports Ms Ley, who is a licensed commercial pilot, charged $6300 to fly from Canberra to Melbourne in July in 2014, and another $7000 to travel from Canberra to Adelaide in May 2015. An equivalent commercial fare for the Canberra to Adelaide trip costs about $190.
Ms Ley insists she’s broken no rules, but the government has admitted the rules need changing.
Acting Special Minister of State Kelly O’Dwyer has announced a federal government crackdown on the system will be introduced in the first half of 2017.
She said the government was working to deliver on 36 recommendations made by an independent review 11 months ago after Mrs Bishop’s Choppergate.
Central to the changes is a clearer definition of parliamentary business, Ms O’Dwyer said.
The review, commissioned by former prime minister Tony Abbott, calls for “non-remuneration support provided to parliamentarians” to be termed “work expenses” rather than “entitlements” or benefits”.
It also recommends an updated definition of “parliamentary business” and urges the government to “adopt a statement of principles … to support parliamentarians’ decision-making” regarding what should be classed as work expenses.
Other recommendation include reigning in addition travelling allowances given when spouses accompany ministers and office holders, and reduce provisions for post-retirement travel for former parliamentarians.
Kelly O’Dwyer says politicians ‘must respect taxpayers money’ in relation to the Sussan Ley controversy.
The recommendations are due to be introduced to parliament “as soon as possible” when it resumes next month, but opposition and independent MPs argue the proposed changes don’t go far enough.
Crossbench senator Nick Xenophon is calling for harsher penalties for those who exploit the rules and wants an “independent watchdog” to oversee the system.
He first drafted laws to overhaul the system two years ago but failed to secure support for the changes in parliament.
Independent MP Andrew Wilkie wants to see politicians who rort the system face criminal charges rather than simply pay the money back or step aside from their positions. He believes there are systemic problems that allow parliamentarians to spend public money improperly and get away with it.
Labor frontbencher Linda Burney said the best course of action was for MPs to understand current rules and follow them.