I’m in the hi-fidelity first class traveling set… Outrage about political expenses is easy

Shortly after the Centrelink fiasco — in which Centrelink overzealously pursued the possibility of debts to the Commonwealth regardless of the quality of its evidence — Australia was served a fresh helping of ‘Politicians spending any money at all is an outrage’ in the media.  Journalists love these stories because they practically write themselves.  Take an example of a politician spending money, strip all the context away from it, and then sit back and watch the outrage engine do the rest.

There is a reason why conservative female politicians are always the ones who suffer the brunt of this kind of public discussion.

Many hack journalists have tried to link the Centrelink fiasco with the political expenditures discussion.  The two feed into each other naturally: on the one hand, the government is pursuing debts that do not really exist while, on the other, politicians are wasting taxpayer funding on travel and meals.

This sort of analysis only works on the most superficial levels.  Perhaps that is why so many of Australia’s journalists are peddling it.

There are two fundamental issues with political expenditure, and both issues are extremely difficult.  First, there is the problem of intuiting precisely what a politician’s job is.  Second, there is the problem of community standards as an accountability measure.

Let’s start with the problem of what a politician’s job is.  It seems intuitively correct that a person should not pay out of their own pocket to do their own job.  If I have to go to Melbourne for a conference for work, my employer should cover flights and accommodation.  Attending the conference is obviously part of my job, so it flows on that the expenses should be covered by my employer.

But what is a politician’s job?  If the Prime Minister tells a Minister to travel to Melbourne to attend a conference, it seems likely that this is a work expense.  But is it?  There might be a sleight of hand here.  If the Prime Minister tells a Minister to travel to Melbourne to attend the football final, it no longer seems like a work expense.  But, for all we know, the same kind of activity will be had at the conference as at the football final.  Meeting with people, discussing issues, getting informed about the views of others.

It turns out that drawing a line between a politician’s job and their private life is extremely difficult to do.  It is made all the more difficult by the invasive nature of our media where no part of a politician’s life appears to be off-limits.  They are always at work.  Everything they do is part of their job.

But if everything is part of the job, then their employer should cover everything they do.  And that’s where the absurdity arises.

The problem is assuming at the start that every career has work expenses in the same way.  I purchase a phenomenal number of books which informs my work, but it is because I have a lifestyle where part of that is the sort of work that I do.  It comes part and parcel: if I want this sort of work, then I need to be aware that it comes with these kinds of expenses.  If I don’t like that, then I should find a different kind of work.

This pathway leads to uncomfortable positions.  We have a lot of employers who now argue that employees should provide their own tech.  A good example of this is employers who think employees should bring their own laptops to work.  If, at one end, we want to say that a consequence of having this job is that you are going to need to spend your own money on your work, then there needs to be some understanding that it is not generalisable across the workforce and it should not creep downwards.

But it lets us frame the problem fairly neatly: why are politicians able to claim expenses?

Some schemes have an obvious benefit.  I think the publications allowance is absolutely a wonderful thing and should be retained.  First, it incentivises politicians to read.  Second, it lets me, as a voter, know exactly what my elected representatives are reading (or, at the very least, buying).

At the same time, they get paid a salary to live the kind of life that demands a lot of travel and socialising.  They are paid a vast amount of money and do not need their salary subsidised with these kinds of expenses.

Do we want to incentivise politicians to go to the football?  Do we want to incentivise politicians to go give speeches at little think tanks populated by their mates?  Do we want to incentivise politicians to give speeches at fundraisers?

There might not be a blanket rule here, but at least we can intuit the outlines of an answer.  We want them to claim when it is consistent with community standards, and we think politicians should cover their own expenses unless there is a good reason to the contrary.

And this gets us nicely to the second part: community standards.  A lot of the problem is the irresolvable discussion about ‘what’s within the rules’ and ‘what’s within community expectations’.  Ideally, politicians should be able to organise their affairs without strict guidelines to regulate them.  We have voted for them because they represent our values.  They will act with integrity and with decency without fear of reprisal because they know that we will vote them out if they do not meet our standards.

Statutory bodies to probe politicians’ expenses is a confusion of our political system.  The democratically elected politicians are at the top of the accountability tree, answerable to the electorate.  Integrity Commissioners have a confused role both purporting to be answerable to the democratically elected politicians while regulating them.

But this is flawed on two counts.  First, it seems this kind of democratic utopianism is naive.  A number of senators, in particular, have absolutely no fear of not being reelected.  They are answerable to their party leaders and, if they do not please them, they will not be returned to the first spot on their party’s ticket.  There is a real problem here: how do we get rid of politicians who act so far outside of community standards?  The system seems rigged in their favour.

The second is that our political elites demonstrate time and time again that they are utterly out of touch with community standards.  The problem is that journalists also fit into this category of out-of-touch elites.  Inner city types who grew up in Sydney, went to university in Sydney, and now work in Sydney have absolutely no idea what a pub is like, let alone what would pass a ‘pub test’.  Journalists — particularly when it comes to expenses — are far more avid for scandal than they are for upholding community standards.  A classic example was the faux outrage on ABC late last year where a journalist was criticising the Department of Immigration for purchasing taps.  The cost, out of context, seemed exorbitant, but on closer inspection was entirely fine.  But the average reader doesn’t have time to go find the source of the stories to judge for themselves.  Then again, there isn’t an average reader any more.  There are no readers, average or otherwise.

So we have a performance by the political elites to themselves.  Journalists pretend to be the arbiters of commonsense community values and politicians try to compose the right soundbite to make it seem like they’re ordinary people who just happen to get paid $200k per year.  See also that old chestnut about how much a litre of milk costs.

Underlying the discussion is a undertheorised concept of ‘corruption’.  We sort of understand it: corruption is when a person acts differently than they would have because they have been unlawfully incentivised.  But how do you prove it?  How do you demonstrate that you were going to act in some particular way regardless of the small gift of negligible value that you received?

Far better — we seem to think — to tackle the visibility of corruption rather than corruption itself.  We would rather a rather nice box of cigars to go mouldy in a cupboard than to allow any of the public servants on the delegation to enjoy them, just in case this might be seen as corruption.  It is to the point where the greatest gift a visiting delegation can give is no present at all, because that brings with it no additional paperwork.

But this performance does nothing to tackle real corruption.  We neurotically shout down the perception of corruption rather than the corruption itself.

And it is neurotic.  Here is Wil Anderson:

[tweet https://twitter.com/Wil_Anderson/status/820448086648561664]

Imagine being that petrified of the perception of corruption.  It’s the sort of neuroticism that arises from having no idea what corruption is.

Let’s be clear.  Nobody invites a politician to their event because they fancy a night of their company.  The gifts, access, and privileges are attached to the job, not to the person.  But this does not make it work.  It also doesn’t make it corrupt.  It also — and this is the most important bit — does not make the attendance a work expense.  It is a perk of the job.  It is the job.  That’s why they are paid a small fortune, and what justifies a journalist in need of a scoop to dig through their bins.

But we are very clearly in a position where we don’t trust politicians to regulate themselves and behave appropriately, but also don’t know how to spot when they are behaving inappropriately.  We should be less worried that our political elites have betrayed our trust by claiming a flight to a New Years Eve party, and more worried that our political elites have betrayed our trust by trashing the dignified parts of our democracy.

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