I remember, many years ago, taking business associates to lunch or dinner and keeping the bill so I could charge the meal to my company expense account. That’s just the way things were done in those days. Deep down in my heart, despite being a one-hundred percent believer in private enterprise, I felt that this “expenses” thing was a bit of a con. If my colleague and I had wanted to discuss business matters or a new deal it could just have easily been done in the office, in a park or over a sandwich somewhere. It was a gut thing. Charging expenses didn’t feel right. There is nothing wrong with working over a meal, I thought, but if that’s the way I chose to do it, why should someone else have to pay? Private enterprise tradition, and what I consider dodgy business ethics, demanded that I behaved in ways that went against the grain of my moral compass. I was a chicken. I should have had the ticker to go with my gut and refuse to partake in the “snout in the trough” approach to business… but I didn’t.
Steve Ciobo has a different view. The recent row over what politicians should or should not be able to charge as work expenses had Steve expressing the following thoughts to the ABC.
“Ministers or parliamentary secretaries or others are invited to go along to these (sports) events specifically by businesses and organisations who are taking the opportunity to showcase themselves there, to take the time to have a conversation in relation to important matters, absolutely [it] is work related.”
In my view, if “important matters” need to be discussed with “businesses and organizations” then Steve and his associates can choose to do it in a place that does not cost the tax payer thousands of dollars. What’s wrong with the office… or a park… or over a sandwich somewhere. I would add that it’s hard to imagine that a sports venue is a conducive environment to getting serious amounts of important business done. To waste time and money so appallingly as to do “important” business at a sporting event at a time of plenty is annoying. To do so at a time of “budget emergency” is disgraceful. Steve and the rest of the political class need to ask themselves a single question before they choose to partake in any activity that is going to be charged to the public purse.
“What is the best possible use that these dollars (I am about to spend) could be put to right now?”
If the answer that the politician comes up with is that the money could better be spent on something else, then he or she should not go ahead with the expenditure.
Steve Ciobo is probably great guy. I can’t help thinking, however, that he has a grander view of his role than the public has. Additionally, I suspect that his criteria for determining whether he should attend an event is quite different from the criteria the average Joe or Joanne would consider reasonable. Steve most likely assumes that if any public benefit could come from his appearance then I he would be justified in attending. The public, however, are more likely to expect that if attendance at an event is going to cost a specific number of dollars then specific, measurable outcomes should be expected from attending the event.
To be quite honest, politicians involving themselves in sporting or cultural matters where they personally have no interest or no political responsibility is, in my view, brain-numbingly foolish. The public hate and ridicule politicians who put their hands up to be interviewed, photographed or make speeches at sporting and cultural occasions. Surely, politicians attending sporting events have heard the booing and guffawing directed squarely at them.
The typical Australian politician and the Australian public have a different view as to the appropriate public role of politicians. John Howard used to argue that politicians, as senior elected officials, have a leadership role that places them above that of mere legislators, policy-makers and administrators of government. When he proposed that he should be the one who opened the Sydney Olympic Games he discovered that the public did not share this view. Howard must have momentarily forgotten his self-proclaimed monarchist status. Australian politicians are not Heads of State. If we elected our politicians to perform important symbolic and ceremonial roles as they do in republics, then it would be a different matter. Not in our country. In Australia, until the Constitution changes, politicians are elected to govern. That’s all!
Ciobo’s argues that politicians attend events as guests of “businesses and organizations” as some proof of the fact that they are at the event to work. In other words, through the very act of attending, they are in service to the Australian people. I am not sure that many of the Australian people see it this way. As one leading commentator/broadcaster has said:
“Most pollies go to sporting events as guests of corporations in private boxes. How the elites behave in their privileged enclaves, how it may effect the state of mind of all those enboxed in this way and what the public might think about the distance it creates between pollies, their elite mates and the concerns of ordinary folk…” are important issues that one would think elected representatives would consider.
Politicians win few accolades when they place themselves in exalted positions at sporting and cultural events. Community leaders (business, charity, volunteers etc.) and Vice-Regal officers, who often achieve their rank through heroic service to the community, rarely suffer such public humiliation as to be booed and heckled by the crowds. Politicians, as elected officials, have not earned the admiration and respect of the public (as community heroes) and hence cop ridicule when they parade their perceived authority at public events. One would think that elected officials would have the good sense to keep away from sporting and cultural events if they have no business to be there.
Politicians who love sport, or who are genuine fans of a sports team or sporting event should attend matches if they choose to. But they should have to pay for the airline ticket, for the hotels they stay in and for entry to the event. Politicians who do not love sport, love a team or cherish a special event should just keep well away. How come the media and politicians themselves think that the public give a tinker’s cuss about which horse Bill Shorten or Malcolm Turnbull thinks is going to win the Melbourne Cup? But, politicians pretending to know something about horse racing, is no more foolish than Tony Abbott pretending to know something about an Australian Football Grand Final. Mind you, Abbott commenting on AFL doesn’t sound half as silly as Victorian and South Australian politicians prattling on about their favourite “rugby” teams when anyone who knows anything about sport knows that they are referring to Rugby League teams (rugby is a completely different sport).
My tip to politicians? Just follow your gut. It’s not that hard. If you love the footy or the cricket, go… but pay for yourself. If you are invited to an event by a business or organization? If the whole thing is free then go ahead, if it feels right… but be aware of the impact of your parading yourself has on your constituents. If it’s going to cost the public a motza in airfares and hotels, then politely decline the invitation and suggest that they meet you at your office on Monday. If you are a Prime Minister and you are attending an event? You should pay your own way, too. Don’t make any speeches. Don’t award any medals. It’s not your role. No one is going to appreciate you sticking your nose into their game, anyway. For anyone in elected office… don’t put anything on the public purse that would be better spent somewhere else.
And to the politician who today claimed that politicians “have to” attend sporting events that they don’t even want to attend, I say, bollocks!
Poor dears! Please! The world is going to stop turning if they don’t turn up, is it? Don’t take yourselves so seriously.
It just takes one politician to have the guts to change this foolish culture by saying, “No, I don’t have to attend.”