IAN KIRKWOOD: Pollies fail reality test

IAN KIRKWOOD: Pollies fail reality test

I KNOW I am soft in the head sometimes.
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I must be, because I think most people elected to politics work hard at what they do, with around-the-clock working lives that come with as many personal costs as they do rewards, especially those in marginal electorates.

Our politicians do difficult jobs that put them squarely in the public eye as part of an intensive and ever-churning media cycle that is far more attuned to finding their weaknesses than their strengths, and their personalities as much as their policies, because that is the way human curiosity works.

But then I balance these considerations against the sorts of shortcomings being revealed in the latest expense account controversy and I have to acknowledge that Canberra appears to have more than its share of hands in the cookie jar.

As rich as some of the claims might be – the various weddings, Labor MP Bernie Ripoll’s 2011 Tour de Folly, the $9400 that Tony Abbott had to repay in 2010 after charging the taxpayer some travel expenses from a promotional tour of his book Battlelines – I’m not entirely sure it’s the ‘‘mistakes’’ or rorting claims themselves that most deeply annoys people. After all, if we are honest with ourselves, most of us will take what’s on offer.

More accurately, I think it’s the disconnection between what our politicians say, and what they do.

It’s the way our politicians are all too happy to get into the bully pulpit to lecture the great unwashed on the need to tighten their belts – and telling people they are doing the same – only for their cavalier attitude to the public purse to be revealed later on.

It’s the way the same politicians – as the Gillard government did last year – can charge their expenses to the Commonwealth while giving pious justifications for a need to cut into welfare payments for single mothers, most of whom are struggling to make ends meet.

It’s the way state and federal governments alike seem unable to fund major infrastructure – despite our increasing national wealth – and insist instead that the private sector must build new roads (for example) that we must then pay to use, even though we’ve paid our taxes.

Or – in the case of Newcastle – that they say, yes, we will put in a light rail, but first we have to lease the port for 99years and break a longstanding political promise to build the state’s next container terminal after Port Botany in Newcastle.

Then again, maybe it is the rorting claims, and the way that nothing changes despite the passing parade of reviews and regulatory overhauls that are promised after every scandal.

Maybe all our efforts are doomed to fail, because humans are endlessly inventive, and a new rule in one area automatically generates a search for a new loophole in another.

Or maybe it’s our modern belief that the social sciences – history and languages and the classics – are no longer needed. Because if we don’t cast an eye to the mistakes of the past, and learn from them, we must surely be doomed to repeat ourselves as each new generation steps up, increasingly uninterested in learning from those who went before.

On history repeating itself, it was lovely to see former Howard government minister Peter Reith entering the debate this week, saying it was “ridiculous” to put limits on ministerial travel in “a system that says some things that ministers do are part of business and others aren’t’’.

Given that Reith had to repay a $50,000 phone bill charged to taxpayers after a government phone card he gave to his son was used to rack up 11,000 free phone calls from 900 locations in various countries over five years, you’d have thought he might have developed some sense of the difference between the public and the private.

But apparently not. Or maybe it’s all just an unintended consequence of Prime Minister Abbott’s determination to take ‘‘politics’’ off the front page. He should know that nature abhors a vacuum of policy statements.