The Colston affair

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Title

The Colston affair

The federal attorney-general, Daryl Williams, will continue examining until April 18 whether "independent" Senator Mal Colston's claiming of 43 days' of travel allowance when he wasn't travelling is sufficiently serious to warrant investigation by the Australian Federal Police. The government relies on Colston and Brian Harradine to get through the Senate legislation which is opposed by the ALP, Democrats and Greens. If Colston were forced to resign, he would be replaced by a Labor senator.

The bad smell surrounding the Colston affair is caused by more than the possibility of fraud and the government's evident desire to shelter Colston. Last year's spectacle, in which Colston resigned from the ALP and was then elected by the government as deputy president of the Senate, was not exactly morally edifying, though it seems that this trade-off was not corruption in a legal sense — a fact which many would say indicates a defect in present law.

Then, just before Colston provided the crucial vote to pass the Telstra privatisation bill, John Howard overruled the president of the Senate to approve a rise of $10,000 and various other perks for Colston's office manager. She has taken the blame for "sloppy bookkeeping" that caused Colston to claim travel allowance when he was at home. There's nothing illegal in any of this either, Colston and the government assure us.

In fact, possibly illegal actions aren't the worst aspect. What the affair has indirectly highlighted is the perfectly legal ways that exist to ensure that parliamentarians share the outlook of the powers that be.

Payment of MPs was originally a democratic reform demanded by the labour movement. Winning it meant that workers' representatives were no longer barred from parliament by economic necessity.

No longer able to block all but the wealthy from entering parliaments, capitalist governments did the next best thing: they ensured that anyone entering parliament would very quickly become wealthy.

In federal parliament today, even the lowliest backbencher gets an annual salary of almost $82,000, plus an electorate allowance between $26,000 and $37,800. After eight years in parliament, they are entitled to a pension equal to at least half of their base salary. According to a report in the March 8 Australian, federal parliamentary salaries have risen 70% in the last decade, compared to 40% for average wages.

Additional sums are available for sitting on one or more of more than 40 parliamentary committees, or for holding down jobs such as parliamentary secretary to a minister (deputy president of the Senate is worth $16,344 a year). All MPs are entitled to either a chauffeur-driven car service or a self-drive luxury car, with free petrol and maintenance. All their telephone calls are free. If they do not live in Canberra, they are entitled to an allowance of $145 a night whenever they are there. They have unlimited first-class travel by air, rail or bus on parliamentary or electorate business.

Further up the greasy pole — which you don't climb by making trouble for the system — there are ministerial salaries, starting at $124,000. John Howard gets over $200,000. Treasurer Peter Costello gets $177,000 for telling us to tighten our belts. Kim Beazley, as leader of the opposition, learns what it's like to be a battler on $145,000.

The function of these lurks and perks is simple: to ensure that there is always a solid parliamentary majority believing that the economic, social and political situation isn't all that bad. The simple reform of reducing parliamentary salaries to the average wage and abolishing the perks would do wonders to introduce some sense of reality into parliamentary debates.

The traditional justification for high parliamentary salaries is that they are needed to attract "good" MPs. That's nonsense. Offering money and privilege to parliamentarians attracts parliamentarians who are interested in money and privilege. That suits big business just fine, but the rest of us could do without a parliament that attracts Mal Colstons.