Thursday, July 2, 2009

High Flyers

Are you really surprised by the revelation that around $8.3 million of taxpayers money has been spent on air travel for retired politicians and their spouses over eight years from 2001? For some reason this has made front page headlines, and while it might indeed be a startling statistic, it is not exactly news, as this has been going on for as long as anybody can remember. Apparently, those who qualified for the “gold travel pass” before 1994 can travel as far and as frequently as they like within Australia. Those who have qualified since 1994 have the number of trips they can take limited to 25 per year, which still works out at travelling every fortnight, so it would be a dedicated traveler who wanted to fly more often than that anyway.

There’s no doubt that this is a generous scheme, and there is no requirement for it to be used in the public benefit. Quite the opposite, it is actually intended to be a benefit which can be used for personal travel such as holidays as a reward for services to the nation. While it is debatable as to just how valuable that service has been in the case of some politicians, this is simply the way the system has been designed. Some argue that this, like other perks and benefits, is justified because the level of pay in politics is not as generous as equivalent management positions in the corporate sector, while others claim that it allows them to continue to serve the community by attending charitable and community events. But the important point is that there is no requirement for any of them to do so.

While 20 000 free flights at a cost of over $8 million is easily seen as extravagant, the fact is that, spread over eight years, the price tag of around $1 million a year out of a federal budget approaching $400 billion is almost insignificant. It certainly isn’t about to send the country broke, and compared to the $12 billion handed out in free money to stimulate the economy it seems to be a mere trifle. In fact, it could even be argued that in the economic downturn the airline industry needs all the help it can get. But of course, all of that overlooks the real question which is quite simply this: is there any benefit to the taxpayer?

For example, does this generous reward help to attract a better standard of politician to the parliament? Do the recipients of this benefit use it in service to the community? And if they do, why shouldn’t that be a requirement of the scheme? In fact, it is hard to see any benefit to the taxpayer at all out of this scheme. It appears to be nothing more than a lifetime handout, which rather rewarding good service, makes no distinction between those who serve the community well and those who do not.

Just because the scheme has been in place for a long time doesn’t mean it should remain in place. If the community believes that it is not receiving value in return for the expense, then perhaps it is time to reconsider the plan. Abolishing the scheme won’t save the country huge sums of money, and it won’t stop the budget plunging into deficit. In those terms it is quite simply not that big a deal. But in terms of reward for performance, the standards of the twenty first century which are applied to the rest of us would seem to indicate that this particularly generous reward is the relic of a long past era and no longer appropriate in its present form.

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