Friday, May 22, 2009

Pot Plants Paid For With Political Allowances Are Probably A Good Thing

Following the attention given this week to allowances and benefits paid to Federal politicians, it’s not altogether surprising that the spotlight would swing around to state politicians as well. It has been revealed that in New South Wales M.P.s have been claiming a wide range of interesting items against what is supposed to be a logistical support allowance. Claims have been made for such things as promotional items like personalized pens, mugs, and balloons, along with one case where a politician hade his face emblazoned on Frisbees. Other claims included the cost of cable TV, travel, pot plants and even haircuts.

The good news is that many of these claims have been rejected, although some have been approved in the past including $1000 worth of personalized pens for the opposition leader Barry O’Farrell. In the wake of revelations of British politicians making use of public money for some very doubtful purposes, questions are now being asked here in Australia about our own parliamentarians. As a result, the speaker of the New South Wales parliament has put all requests on hold pending a ruling from the Parliamentary Remuneration Tribunal as to just what items should be covered by the allowance.

It’s a similar problem to the one confronting the Federal Parliament. While there is a legitimate purpose for such allowances to pay for the expenses involved in attending to the needs of the electorate, there appears to be so much latitude in the rules that the system is virtually designed to encourage abuses. In the case of the Federal politicians, the unspent electoral allowance money can be kept as taxable income for the politician, in what amounts to a back door pay rise. This is quite clearly a disincentive to actually use the money for the intended purpose, that is to serve the electorate.

At the state level, it seems that our politicians are fond of using the logistical support allowance to pay for promotional material reminding the public of what good fellows they are. It comes awfully close to party political promotion when money is spent on plugging the public image of the politician rather than actually providing support and services to the community. The intended purpose of the allowance is supposed to be to cover office expenses, and some travel costs, for both the parliamentarian and his or her spouse. Instead, voters are given pens with the name of the opposition leader printed on them, which probably indicates just how difficult it is for most members of the public to remember without prompting anyway.

The problem is not that politicians are provided with these allowances, or even that some of them use the money for dubious purposes. The problem is that the rules governing the allowances are not clearcut, and allow too much latitude for them to be used either for the personal benefit of the politician, or for what should be considered party political promotion and which should therefore be paid for by the party, not the public.

Although, I am prepared to make an exception for the pot plants. Obviously, adding a pot plant not only improves the ambience in a political office, but there’s also a good chance that it might improve the average IQ in there as well.

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