Business

Charter planes, flags and free travel: How federal politicians spend millions

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Sussan Ley on September 8, 2016 in Sydney, Australia. Source: Getty

The federal government has implemented only three of the 36 recommendations into streamlining the parliamentary entitlements system, saying the rest requires significant legislative changes.

The use of parliamentary travel entitlements have been in the headlines for the past few days, but even with thousands claimed by MPs like Sussan Ley, George Brandis, Peter Dutton and Mitch Fifield, travel expenses are not even the biggest drag on the country’s entitlements bill.

The cost of maintaining and operating electoral offices for the 150 Members of the House of Representatives and 76 Senators - is a bill worth more than $16 million, and that’s only for the months of January to June 2016.

Politicians also need to stay connected, in constant communication with their electorate, and taxpayers foot the bill for that too: $1.2 million was spent on fixed and mobile telecommunications in the first half of 2016.

While the travel claims of Bronwyn Bishop – who famously billed taxpayers for a $5000 helicopter ride – forced the Abbott Government to commission a review into the murky world of entitlements, nearly a year after it was released only three of the 36 recommendations have been implemented.

So, what exactly are your parliamentarians entitled to?

Firstly all Senators and Members are given a base salary of $199,040 per year. Ministers, office holders and heads of committees receive an extra loading amount on top of that figure. The Prime Minister earns $522,000 per year, the Deputy Prime Minister $408,032, the Treasurer $373,200 and the Opposition Leader takes home $368,224 each year.  

A full list of salary and loadings is located here.

Office

Each Senator and Member is also entitled to an “electorate allowance” which ranges from $32,000 to $46,000 (depending on how big the electorate is) each year. If the parliamentarian doesn’t have a private-plated vehicle, they’re also entitled to an additional allowance of $19,500 per annum to meet the costs of getting around the electorate.

An office budget of $97,771 for Senators and $130,916 for Members to cover office requisites and stationery, printing and communications as well as the purchasing of publications is granted. There is also an office budget allowance of 70 cents per enrolled voter in a member or senator's electorate to cover the cost of postage.

MPs can also give away as many large Australian flags as they like to schools, and are allowed to gift 50 per year to individuals, however, a list must be kept. (They’re often given out when someone becomes an Australian citizen.)

Travel

Unlimited domestic business class flights are allowed for the most “reasonable and usual” route for Members and Senators needing to conduct official business. According to the handbook “official business” is limited to properly constituted meetings of a government advisory committee or task force, or functions representing a minister or presiding officer.   

When no commercial flights exist, or the Senator or Member would be “unduly delayed” by using such travel, they can charter a plane. Northern Territory Senators get a charter budget of $65,760 per year, Queensland and Western Australian Senators $26,490 and those in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania allowed $14,860. Members are also gifted with this entitlement ranging anywhere from $10,000 to $120,000 depending on the size of their electorate.

All Members, Senators and their staff are also given an allowance when travelling to cover accommodation, meals, and incidentals for each night they stay away from home. The rate differs in each location ranging from $273 for a night in Canberra to $498 for staying in parts of Western Australia. Ministers get more than others with the Prime Minister allowed a flat rate of $564.

There’s also Family Reunion travel, which allows politicians to fly their family to accompany them on business away from home. This allows for nine business class return flights to Canberra for their spouse or partner and three business class return flights for their children. When an MP or Senator is working interstate (other than Canberra) three business class flights are allowed each year for their family to join them.

Controversially, politicians within the ACT are allowed an expense of $87 just to turn up to work in Parliament House each sitting day. However, of the four Canberra MPs and Senators, only two have consistently claimed the expense. Labor’s Andrew Leigh billed for $572 and Assistant Minister Zed Seselja for $1026 in the six months to June in 2016.

Elected representatives are also allowed business class airfares to go about their official business, which can be downgraded if they want to take their spouse. As an example of just how quickly this adds up, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop spent more than $416,000 during January to June 2016.  

Life gold pass

Former parliamentarians are able to travel within Australia for 'non-commercial' purposes at the taxpayers expense under the Life Gold Pass. Originally introduced in the early 1900s to provide rail travel for MPs, it has grown into a costly entitlement allowing ex-politicians and their spouses continued access to business class flights.

Those who entered the federal parliament before 2012 are entitled to the 10 Australian domestic return trips per year for themselves and their partner. Legislation is before the parliament to abolish the pass - except for former prime ministers - by 2020, but it has been stalled in the Senate for two years.

Gift giving

Want to spoil your MP with a bottle of wine, tickets to a soccer match or upgrade them on their flight? It’s allowed but just know the politician will have to declare it.

Cars

All politicians are entitled to an Australian-made, private-plated vehicle with all the costs covered by the taxpayer. Parking? No problem, Senators and MPs are entitled to $240 each year.

When travelling on parliamentary business a Commonwealth car with a driver - known as a ComCar - can be used, which are charged at an hourly rate of $79.  

The Sussan Ley saga – in which she used a taxpayer funded trip to purchase an $800,000 apartment – has opened the floodgate for parliamentary travel and expense claims, and the federal government has vowed to reform the rules in the first half of 2017.

In the meantime, you can scrutinise your local MP or Senator's claims here.