Sunday, October 20, 2013

Political expenses. It's the white lie that's the worst one

Sunday Column

Of all the lies told in the parliamentary expenses scandal the most dangerous is the white one - the one designed to make it look as if it’s the rules themselves that are to blame, not the politicians who have abused them.

Foreign minister Julie Bishop tells it beautifully.

“I believe that there is a very grey area between what is official business and what is an event that could be characterised in another way,” she told the ABC’s AM program.

“When we are invited to events, most of the time it's in our capacity as a parliamentarian. If someone wanted to characterise it because I knew the people for example, well is that a social event?”

As unlikely as it seems, she was talking about a wedding.

The truth is that for back benchers the rules are unflinchingly clear.

Ordinary members of parliament can claim travel for only four purposes - meetings of their parliamentary party, “electorate business”, “parliamentary business” (such as representing the parliament or sitting on committees) and “official business” (defined as properly constituted meetings of government advisory bodies or functions representing a minister or presiding officer).

That’s it. Anything else - certainly a wedding, a ski trip or a trip interstate to take possession of a rental property, anything else is off limits. To suggest otherwise is to suggest the person making the claim can’t read.

And to suggest that things are alright because the finance department has paid the claim is absurd.

Coalition MP Don Randall did it while stonewalling over the $5259 he spent on the “electorate business” of a trip to Cairns with his a family member. Cairns is 3446 kilometres from his electorate.

He said the claim was "appropriately acquitted with the Department of Finance".

Anyone familiar with self-assessment will know that paying a claim isn’t the same as approving it, or even examining it...

The Tax Office pays almost everything we claim automatically. It simply checks that the numbers add up. Years later it might come after us in an audit, but until then it treats as as adults who can wear the consequences of our actions.

Randall later conceded that he was wrong - payment doesn’t mean approval. He said he would refund the payment “to ensure the right thing is done by the taxpayer and to alleviate any ambiguity”.

Ambiguity? Randall sits on the committee that oversees MP’s behaviour. Like George Brandis, the attorney general, his claims have been referred to the police. They are not alone in seeing ambiguity where others see clear rules. Few in politics, and few near the very top of politics, seem able to grasp the obvious truth - that for the most part there’s a clear boundary between what is right and wrong. There isn’t a “very grey zone”.

That those at the top can’t grasp that truth says something about them and also something about the blindness that sets in when people ascend to positions of power.

It isn’t just me saying that. The moral blindness that accompanies power has been well documented.

Dutch psychologists Joris Lammers and Adam Galinsky are leading the way. A few years back they divided sixty students into two groups. One they “primed” to feel powerful by asking them to remember occasions when they had power. The other, they primed to feel powerless.

Each was asked to take part in an experiment in which they could cheat. The group that felt powerful cheated more.

Then they asked each group what they thought of people who cheated on travel expenses. Bizarrely the powerful group not only cheated more but came down harder on cheaters. Lammers and Galinsky entitled their study Power Increases Hypocrisy.

In order to be sure, they carried out the experiment again and again in different contexts. In one they asked whether it was okay to break the speed limit to get to an appointment on time. The powerful group was more likely to say no, but also more likely to say it would speed. In another they asked whether it was okay to omit from a tax return income earned from a second job. The powerful group said it was not, but was also more likely to say it would do it.

They were sexual hyprocates as well. Lammers and Galinsky emailed magazine readers anonymous questionnaires. The higher they were in their organisation's hierarchy, the more likely they were to confess that they had been unfaithful.

Power corrupts, and it appears to do it through a kind of blindness that allows powerful people to think the rules apply to other people, not them. It’s our leaders who are at fault in the politicians expenses scandal, not the rules they are breaking.

In The Canberra Times and The Sun Herald

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