Happily Ever After

Can’t you almost hear it – the faint whir of laptops being fired up across the country and Outlook calendars searched for any mention of the word ‘wedding’? You can bet that MPs of all political colours and persuasions will be busily searching back through their records and expenses claims in order to prevent being included in the most recent news story out of Canberra.

So far, five Coalition MPs have been implicated in the ‘dodgy expense claims’ relating to three weddings. The first and most controversial centred on the 2011 wedding of former 2UE presenter Mike Smith which was attended by Coalition frontbenchers George Brandis and Barnaby Joyce. Brandis has since repaid $1,700, while Joyce has denied making any claims beyond perhaps using a Commonwealth car on the day.

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Since then, it has been reported that new Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Queensland MP Teresa Gambaro and Joyce attended the 2011 wedding of the daughter of one of Gina Rinehart’s close business associates in India. All three claimed study allowances for the trip home as they went on to various other meetings and so on.

And this morning, it has been revealed that Tony Abbott himself has paid back more than $1,000 that he claimed to attend the wedding of newly former Coalition MP Sophie Mirabella in 2006.

Controversies surrounding politicians’ expense claims have been around for almost as long as politics itself and there is always an element of ‘let those who are without sin cast the first stone’ – as Brandis has unfortunately discovered these past couple of weeks. He was the closest pursuant of Peter Slipper in the last parliament for claiming trips to wineries, amongst other things.

As Malcolm Turnbull said this morning, it is not uncommon for travel expense claims to be repaid. This type of behaviour is not limited to politics and gives an interesting insight into what the diffusion of a media storm is worth. Obviously it is worth more than $1,000 to Tony Abbott and $1,700 to George Brandis.

The recent scandal involving former Leighton CEO Wal King* repaying over $40,000 in expenses would tend to indicate that it can be worth a lot, LOT more.

This behaviour of repaying claims to take the sting out of the story is made possible by the dual defence of ‘guidelines about expense claims are ambiguous’ (as used by Malcolm Turnbull today) and, my favourite – albeit less openly cited directly by those in question, ‘everybody else is doing it too’.

Interim Labor leader Chris Bowen’s comments regarding the claims would tend to indicate that the ALP are going to repay the favour and pursue the Coalition mercilessly, saying that there are still questions to be answered. However, it is interesting to note that even Bowen has put a disclaimer in place in the event of any own goals from the opposition, by admitting that ‘mistakes happen’.

“This simply isn’t good enough. The Australian people deserve full transparency and disclosure here. I call on Mr Abbott and Mr Brandis, instead of saying that these claims were legitimate and they’re paying them back in order to avoid any doubt, to actually admit they got it wrong.”

“Mistakes happen… but I think the Australian people are entitled to expect their politicians to be honest about when mistakes happen and give them an honest explanation.”

Expect more nuptial and non-nuptial related expense claims being examined, pursued and probably repaid in coming days.

*In a completely unrelated side note, that’s a name with such potential. I would end every conversation with a Craig David-inspired “I’m Wal King away”.

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