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The treatment of politicians who fail to properly report their personal circumstances is markedly different to the draconian system imposed on the poor. By Mike Seccombe.

Judging politics by Centrelink’s rules

Julie Bishop and David Panton at Victoria Derby Day in Melbourne.
Credit: AAP Image / Tracey Nearmy

Luckily for them, Julie Bishop and Barnaby Joyce don’t have to explain their love lives to Centrelink.

Luckily, because as members of Australia’s political class they get to deal with much more accommodating regulators than do Australia’s welfare recipients.

Bishop’s “friend”, as she coyly described him when their relationship was new back in 2014, is David Panton, variously described in media articles as a winemaker and property developer.

Bishop keeps her friend close. The pair has posed for photographs at the Rio Olympics, on the floor of the United Nations, at a polo tournament in Portsea, at the Melbourne Cup, at Canberra’s Midwinter Ball.

Clearly, they are more than friends. In fact, when it comes to Bishop’s use of her travel entitlement, he is “family”. According to figures from the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority, Panton has cost the taxpayer some $32,000 since 2015.

But while he is “family” when it comes to claiming taxpayer-funded travel, he is not when it comes to parliament’s register of members’ interests.

The register requires members and senators to declare their pecuniary interests, including real estate and mortgages, holdings in public and private companies, trusts, other assets, gifts, sponsorships, and more. It is essentially an anti-corruption measure designed to prevent, or at least expose to public view, potential or actual conflicts of interest.

The register also asks members to declare the interests of their spouses and, in some cases, dependent children. Bishop, however, does not make any declaration in relation to her property developer partner. They’re not married, just friends with major taxpayer-subsidised benefits.

Joyce’s register, by contrast, does include the interests of his spouse, although in each of a dozen fields is scribbled the word “separated”.

The most interesting addition to his register is the most recent. It was only on March 23 this year that Joyce updated the register declaring an additional “item”, that item being a new “partner”. Under the “details” heading, he included her name: Vikki Campion.

To his credit, Joyce was more forthright than Bishop. He also declared Campion’s property and shareholdings, mortgage and bank accounts.

The problem is, he was way late in doing it. Members and senators are supposed to update the register with any relevant new information within 28 days. But Campion was eight months’ pregnant before Joyce changed his listing. And their relationship apparently long predated her pregnancy. Joyce’s estranged wife reportedly confronted Campion about it in April 2017.

Further complicating matters, Campion was not only Joyce’s lover but also a Coalition staffer, first in his office, before being found jobs with other Nationals ministers, all at considerable cost to the taxpayer. And there was nothing at all wrong with that, according to Malcolm Turnbull’s interpretation of the ministerial code of conduct.

As the Department of Human Services informs those in receipt of welfare payments, you don’t have to be married to be considered part of a couple. You can be in a de facto relationship or “multiple” relationship. There is no minimum time period for a relationship to be deemed de facto. You don’t even have to physically live with your partner.

In determining couple status, the department says, five main factors are considered. These are, and we quote: “the financial aspects of your relationship; the nature of your household; social aspects of your relationship; if you have a sexual relationship; nature of your commitment to each other.”

And, it says: “We can decide you’re a member of a couple even if all of these factors aren’t part of your relationship.”

Failure to immediately inform Centrelink of changed personal circumstances spells trouble. As the department site warns, money will have to be repaid and “there may be other penalties”.

It seems reasonable to suspect that if Bishop, Joyce and their respective partners were taking taxpayer dollars via the welfare system, rather than through the arcane system of political perks and patronage, the authorities would have been taking a long hard look at their circumstances. Draw your own conclusions about what they would determine.

Joyce didn’t inform the relevant parliamentary authorities of his changed circumstances for at least nine months, and likely much longer. But did any penalty attach? No.

He’s not remotely alone in this regard. Parliamentarians regularly neglect to put important detail on the register of interests. Famously, the former Labor frontbencher David Feeney “forgot” a $2.3 million investment property in Melbourne, and initially claimed under questioning not to know if it was negatively geared or not. It was.

Likewise, current Liberal frontbencher Michaelia Cash was late in declaring her purchase of a $1.4 million investment house in Perth. There are innumerable other examples.

It is worth considering these issues of discretion when looking at the alternative reality at Centrelink. Recently the government in which Joyce and Bishop are senior members made further changes to its ever more draconian regime of welfare checks and penalties.

Starting in January, single parents receiving Parenting Payment or who are on Newstart and have children began receiving letters alerting them to a new compliance measure. They are required to fill out a form, called the “Verification of Relationship Status” form. They also have to get another person, not related to them, to sign the form, and tick one of two boxes: “single” or “partnered”. If that referee’s declaration is found to be false, they are liable to imprisonment for up to 12 months.

As welfare advocates point out, the authorities already have more than adequate investigative powers if they suspect someone of doing the wrong thing. They can speak to neighbours or family members or check financial records and other data.

Those advocates are puzzled also at the curiously specific targeting of the new measure. It doesn’t apply to other single people, only single parents. About 95 per cent of those affected are women.

Whether or not the new measure succeeds in its alleged intent of reducing welfare fraud, it will certainly add stress and stigma to single parents.

There is no reason at all to suspect the latest measure, requiring single parents to get a referee to vouch for their status, will alter that trajectory of growing poverty.

One may well ask, if it’s good enough for some people in receipt of government payments, why is it not good enough for others? Why not require Malcolm Turnbull to sign a document clarifying the status of Julie Bishop’s relationship? Just tick a box, Malcolm: is the minister single or partnered?

Stephen Bartos, a former deputy secretary of the Finance Department and governance expert, gives the government credit for some tightening of politicians’ perks.

“Their entitlements are administered now more tightly than they used to be and some of the more egregious entitlements that people objected to – like the lifetime gold travel pass – have now been removed,” he says.

“There is more disclosure now, and the fact politicians’ claims are now published, as opposed to welfare recipients’ income, makes theirs in that sense a more open regime.

“However, it’s still the case that the claims made by politicians rely essentially on the honesty of the politicians, in contrast to recipients of welfare assistance.”

Still, Bartos cites the huge range of perks still available, from misused magazine subscriptions to overseas study tours.

When claims are questioned or money misused, Bartos says, the compliance is done very quietly and without penalty. “Money is paid back, but not paid back in excess of what they’ve been given.”

Sanctions are rare, but questionable use of entitlements is not. The Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority can impose a “loading” of 25 per cent on the repayment of improperly claimed expenses. At this stage, the authority has never imposed such a penalty.

Imagine if politicians’ entitlements were administered by a tough agency, in the manner of Centrelink. Imagine further how big the stink would be if that agency used computerised systems that consistently raised false debts against MPs and senators.

Consider compulsory drug testing, another example of the government’s willingness to be tough on the underclass but not on the political class.

The program is intended to help people overcome addictions, by forcing them onto income management, whereby 80 per cent of their welfare payments are quarantined through the “Basics” welfare card, which restricts the items on which they can spend money.

But, says Greens Senator Rachel Siewert, it will end up catching and penalising a lot of people who don’t have addiction problems.

“In the three trial areas – where they just happen to have the Basics income card infrastructure in place – they are planning to test up to 5000 randomly selected new applicants for income support.

“If you test positive on your first test, you automatically go onto income management, the Basics card. If you fail a second drug test, you may be referred to treatment. You are on income management for two years.”

And what’s wrong with that? Siewert paints a scenario.

“Someone has a puff on a joint or two on a weekend two months ago at a party. Then they lose their job and have to apply for income support, and get drug tested. And instantly they’re on income management.

“If you’ve just been at a party and smoked a few joints, there is no need for you to go on income management, because you don’t have an addiction. It’s not a barrier to work.”

Indeed, the stigmatisation of the process is likely to be more of a barrier to employment than is casual drug use.

“It’s really obvious this is another punitive, top down, ham-fisted approach from the government.”

Again, we might ask, if it’s good enough for some people in receipt of government payments, why is it not good enough for others?

Be in no doubt, some of our legislators don’t mind a puff now and then, and many more have been known to legislate under the influence of alcohol. Or, as Tony Abbott has admitted, fail to legislate. Some years ago he missed a series of votes in the House relating to a $42 billion stimulus package, because he got pissed and fell asleep.

Lucky for him, his substance abuse proved no barrier to his continued employment.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 28, 2018 as "Judging politics by Centrelink’s rules". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.

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