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Entitlements saga asks what is legitimate political work

John Warhurst |  30 January 2017


The question of proper parliamentary and government work expenses remains unresolved. Whether rural MPs should use charter flights or commercial airlines is the latest aspect.

Sussan Ley talks to votersEvery element of political work expenses is now under sceptical public scrutiny. The recent case of former Minister for Health Sussan Ley is just one of many questionable instances which have stained reputations and ended careers.

Too many politicians have been involved to see it as anything other than a systemic problem. Such individuals should always be held responsible but there is a genuine problem to be resolved.

The central question at the heart of the entitlements issue is what is a legitimate work expense for politicians. The matter of who should then pay for it is controversial but ultimately secondary.

Political representation is a distinctive occupation. Ministers and MPs have a job in which their 'work' is not easily defined. Meeting and greeting is essential. Constituents demand it of their MP, and it is widely regarded as a key to being a good politician.

MPs are encouraged to go on 'listening tours' around their electorate. In the case of senators this legitimately means the whole state. For federal ministers like Ley it means the whole country.

Unfortunately, however, as Simon Cowan of the Centre for Independent Studies correctly notes, 'should a politician want to be in a particular location for personal reasons, they can essentially manufacture legitimate business anywhere in the country'.

This is true especially of ministers, and the more senior the minister, the easier it is for such travel to be explained away as work. Events can either be initiated by individual constituents or groups who then invite politicians, or created by the politician who then invites members of the public.


"If it is a major sporting event, like football finals, it may not look like work but it is, even for political leaders who genuinely enjoy such events. For non-sporting leaders it may be excruciating."


They can be party political or community events organised by groups like chambers of commerce, trade unions or professional bodies, or school fetes, prayer meetings, demonstrations or factory tours. The diary of any politician is filled with such events.

The bigger ticketed events such as sporting and cultural events, which often look like rorts, regularly feature free tickets for politicians to attend as the guest of the organisers. The ticket may be free but the politician, often accompanied by their partner, is expected to pay for their own travel/accommodation. This leads inevitably to the question of whether the employer, in this case the public, pays, or whether the politician, deciding this is not a work expense, pays for it out of their own pocket.

Who should pay depends on the office held by the politician and the definition of political work. For the most senior politicians, including the prime minister and opposition leaders, their presence at just about any event anywhere in Australia (bar personal, family and party political events) is legitimate work because it is a reasonable public expectation that they interact with the community in this way. If it is a major sporting event, like football finals, it may not look like work but it is, even for political leaders who genuinely enjoy such events. For non-sporting leaders it may be excruciating.

Being available and building relationships is a legitimate political activity. The presence of political leaders or relevant ministers need not be justified by specific 'public business' being done or by demonstrating a direct policy outcome.

Politicians are however especially tempted by major sporting and cultural events and by events in attractive holiday locations, like the Gold Coast and Broome. Increasingly national community organisations deliberately hold their annual business and professional events in holiday locations to attract their own members as well as guest speakers and politicians.

But, legitimate or not, the disproportionate attendance of politicians at these prime events and in these holiday environments is evidence of the unhealthy narrowing of interaction between politicians and the community. Those who can put on attractive entertainment and those who are based in holiday locations get the lion's share of community consultation and interaction while the majority are left out.


John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.



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Submitted comments

I think the entitlement saga raises a number of questions, such as parliamentary remuneration; the still unabolished Lifetime God Pass; whether politicians can 'double dip' their parliamentary superannuation whilst holding a lucrative public/private position and the sort of politicians their attractive package deals appear to be attracting. I note Bronwyn Bishop, whilst Speaker, liked to visit schools to lecture them on the advantages of our parliamentary system, which I find ironic. There is much talk amongst the opinionati about how our younger people are disenchanted with democracy. There are a number of reasons for this disenchantment but I would put the poor quality of our elected representatives and their extremely comfortable lifestyles amongst the more important.

Edward Fido 01 February 2017

Thank you, John: a very helpful analysis of a complex matter. This sort of analysis assumes that the reader can calmly assess the issues, but public attitudes towards politicians seems to prevent this happening in many circles, and it also seems to inhibit such balanced analyses in the popular media. I suggest that trust in politicians needs to be identified, and addressed, as part of finding a solution to the issue of who pays for travel etc.

Denis Fitzgerald 01 February 2017

Professor Warhurst is correct. Ethics in such cases are complex. Many organisations and groups like politicians (past and present) to address them. Historical societies, say, or those which study diplomacy. If a former minister has served a diplomatic term, he or she might have significant things to say to such groups -- and ultimately many people will benefit when those speeches to those groups are published disciplines. But such societies are, mostly vsmall and not well-funded. Is it wrong for the former politicians to use "entitlements" to travel to those occasions? Even so, I think that most people would consider that anything to the personal or financial benefit or advantage of SERVING politicians is in a different category entirely, including attendance at party meetings. I'm certainly not advocating the much-touted "pub test" because, frankly, most electors (whether they frequent pubs or not) are poorly informed on the details of most issues which confront politicians and governments (that's why our system empowers us electors to choose those whop will make important decisions, which we're not equipped to make ourselves). Nevertheless, we may be choosing the wrong lawmakers if they cannot see those ethical problems more clearly and honourably.

John CARMODY 01 February 2017

This is a very fair and helpful analysis. In many cases there is a fine line between personal and work travel for politicians. In the case of Bronwyn Bishop and her helicopter rides, it was the egregious sense of entitlement and demonstrably poor judgment of value for (taxpayer's) money that were the problem rather than a dishonest use of entitlements. Where travel has multiple purposes, I think the public deserves to know that, on balance, the expenditure of taxpayer's money was justified. When a politician lies about their travel, that undermines their credibility as to claims of value for money.

Malcolm McPherson 01 February 2017

Thank you for this balanced analysis. I find it interesting that this issue has not yet hit the private sector. Surely those who complain about 'our money' being spent on politicians' travel and expenses should also acknowledge that their money is also being spent, whether they are customer or shareholder, by business executives with their perks, frequently tied as they are to much higher salaries than those of politicians. Every dollar spent on an expense (incluing first or business class travel and entertainment) by the CEO of my bank is reflected in higher fees to me as customer, or lower returns to me as an indirect shareholder through superannuation. Likewise in the case of the Editor of my newspaper incurring legitimate expenses. Whilst not absolving them, methinks the politicians are being disproportionately targetted here....

Chris Smith 01 February 2017

It should be common sense to most of us however there are always some that want more than their fair share and it is these that need to be weeded out of politics. Political representation has now become "about self interest prevailing over national interest".

Cam BEAR 18 March 2017

No one would care if the Nation was in good hands and doing well, but when everybody is doing it tough, and these politicians are buying $million+ real estate while on duty, then personal greed prevails.

Cam BEAR 28 March 2017

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