Another expenses scandal, but at what cost?

Last week marked the end of the winter recess for Federal parliament.

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Today, politicians will fly in and resume sitting for two weeks before having another two weeks off (don’t want to overwork the poor devils with matters of legislation).

With around 12 months to go, it marks the beginning of the end of the 44th parliament.

Prior to the break there was a fair bit of talk flying around about would there be an early election – the fact that Liberal MPs were updating their photos with Tony Abbott was being cited as possible evidence this was the case. There were also ponderings on the viability of Bill Shorten as leader of the opposition. His polling was pretty weak, and he was due to appear at the trade union Royal Commission.

In the end the early election did not come and Bill Shorten is as safe as he has ever been. His appearance at the Royal Commission is now forgotten by pretty much everyone, and any awkwardness he received from the donations he failed to declare has been swamped by the expenses scandal that eventually took down Bronwyn Bishop.

It was always going to be hard to nail Shorten on the donations, because while voters may dislike suggestions of politicians being bought and the whiff of impropriety can be hard to shake, they are much more focussed on politicians misusing public funds.

The expenses scandal has now widened to pretty much include any MP who has used travel. Tony Burke is especially under fire for doubling up meetings and work in Uluru with a family holiday. The coincidence of work and play is the most common dodginess that occurs with politicians’ travel.

John Howard, for example, seemed to somehow find himself in England with meetings whenever there was an Ashes tour. Clearly attending a day’s test match at Lords was just part of the onerous duties one must undertake as PM.

It is good that such MPs’ expenses are being investigated, for there is clearly a culture of pushing the grey area when it comes to claiming entitlements.

But the ALP won’t care too much. Oppositions never have to worry so much about such thing as do governments, primarily because the consequences are never as great as they are for members of the government.

And so this week the biggest change from 6 weeks ago is that Bronwyn Bishop will no longer be sitting in the Speaker’s chair. That will at least mark an improvement on how the affairs of the nation will be debated in parliament, but the reality is that the old talk about the leaders’ positions and that of an early election will continue to bubble away.

The early election speculation certainly was given a nudge last week with Tony Abbott spending time in South Australia to hold a cabinet meeting and to also announce a major ship building project for the state.

The Prime Minister made sure that we all knew what the announcement  of the new ship building plan and other roads projects was about: “Ships mean growth and jobs, free trade means growth and jobs and roads mean growth and jobs.”

This is of course rather different from the usual line which he and other members of the government use in parliament, such as when in February last year the Prime Minister said that “Governments do not create jobs; profitable business creates jobs”.

It would seem governments do actually create jobs, and very much do so when it is politically expedient that they be created in certain areas.

South Australia has become a political battleground after a few years of mostly being ignored by the major parties. The main reason is the Abbott government has treated the state with such cavalier disregard that now they are starting to worry about seats of high profile members such as Chris Pyne in Sturt.

Reneging on the promise to build submarines in the state, effectively ending car subsidies which saw Holden announce it would close production and then cutting the ABC funding such that it was forced to close the Adelaide production office left the state feeling very much unloved, and very much as well in the mood to reciprocate that feeling to the government.

Polling in South Australia has thus been dire for the government for some time, and thrown into the mix are threats by Senator Nick Xenophon to run candidates in lower house seats. As the ABC’s Antony Green notes, that would definitely set many a cat among the pigeons. 

The announcement of ship building in South Australia was thus a necessary move by the Abbott government to try to stem the political bleeding. But it is unlikely to change their fortunes. The government promised before the election to build submarines in the state, and reneged, and the promise to build naval surface ships has to survive till 2018 at the earliest.

South Australian voters may either choose not to believe the promise, or to believe it and also choose to give the government no credit for it – especially as the ALP will obviously agree to the same promise.

After the winter recess which was mostly filled with ephemera and noise that will have dissipated by the time of the election, the beginning of the end has arrived for this parliament. The ship building in South Australia is the first big shot fired in the election campaign. And both parties will use this next sitting period to position themselves for the long run to the ballot box. 

Greg Jericho is an economics and politics blogger and writes for The Guardian and The Drum.

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