Abbott right to ground MPs’ gravy plane


4Phillip Hudson

Bureau Chief


Illustration: Eric Lobbecke Source: Supplied

TONY Abbott’s changes to the Life Gold Pass travel scheme for retired MPs are far more dramatic than the public and many politicians realise.

Yet curiously the government has not promoted just how tough it is being grounding the gravy plane that became an obscene perk no longer in keeping with community standards.

In the May budget the government axed the lifetime status of the Gold Pass which immediately abolished free business class domestic air travel for 100 former MPs while other politicians who had qualified for the entitlement would have their retirement jetsetting severely curbed.

Instead former ministers, presiding officers and opposition leaders will get 10 return trips a year for six years while long-serving backbenchers will get five return trips for three years.

Their travel must also pass a new public benefit test after the government was embarrassed by revelations in The Australian that former MPs, especially ex-Coalition ministers, were using the Gold Pass to travel to their holidays homes.

But the fine print of the legislation which quietly passed the House of Representatives last week and is now before the Senate reveals a time bomb for MPs.

The scheme will selfdestruct on January 1, 2020, for every former and serving politician except former prime ministers. This creates an incentive for long-serving Labor and Coalition MPs to retire before the new decade begins and could see a higher than usual turnover in some safe seats.

The belief among MPs had been that the Life Gold Pass, renamed the Parliamentary Retirement Travel Entitlement, was not being entirely shut down and every current MP who had qualified would get the scaled back travel whenever they retired. That is not the case.

While Julia Gillard took the first steps to close the scheme to new members and cut back the amount of travel, there would still have been between 100 and 200 former MPs claiming free flights until they died.

The changes flowing from Joe Hockey’s budget mean after a transition period, only a handful of former prime ministers will be entitled to any retirement travel.

Under the old rules an MP such as Hockey would receive 25 return flights a year for life after retirement and so would his spouse.

The new sunset clause means Hockey must retire before January 1, 2020, to be entitled to 60 flights over six years. There is no spouse travel.

If he retires after January 1, 2020, unless he has served as prime minister Hockey will be allowed just one return flight from his home base to Canberra to clean out his office and it must be taken within 30 days.

The deadline really does signal that the “age of entitlement” for MPs will be ending — 102 years after the Life Gold Pass started as a rail pass in 1918.

The scheme became the golden nest egg for retired MPs and their family and was, quite simply, a reward for time servers. MPs qualified for lifetime travel if they were a backbencher for 20 years or a minister for six years.

While some used the travel to help community groups and charities others treated it as their own personal airline, which was entirely within the rules.

Travel records revealed regular flights to Lord Howe Island, Broome, Cairns and the Whitsundays, often to escape winter or during Christmas and Easter holidays.

Over the past decade the Gold Pass cost more than $12 million with retired MPs enjoying around 25,000 flights paid for by taxpayers on top of already generous pensions.

Millionaire Geoff Prosser, a minister in the Howard government, was, on average, sending the taxpayer a bill every two months for travel from Perth to Broome where he owns a holiday home. Last year alone Prosser and his family claimed $18,891 in flights.

Ian Sinclair, former Speaker and Nationals leader, was one of the most frequent users of the Gold Pass. In 2004 when lightning struck a 100-year-old Norfolk pine tree near his holiday cottage on Lord Howe Island, Sinclair’s wife flew from Sydney to inspect the damage.

When the $915 trip was queried by the Department of Finance Sinclair told investigators he planned to travel separately from his wife but his flight was cancelled due to “acts of God” and he would have arrived as she was leaving.

Further investigation showed his flight was actually scheduled the day before his wife and he could have travelled on the same day with her. When he sent a refund cheque, he angrily wrote it would have been “ridiculous” for him to travel with his wife just to “legitimise her travel”.

John Howard actually widened the scheme to include ex-MPs who missed out on the lifetime benefit, creating the “severance traveller” perk which provided free flights for between six months and five years.

Under this change, Ruth Webber, a one-term Labor senator from WA, took an astounding 147 flights costing $116,662 over two years at a rate of one flight every five days. Taxpayers picked up the bill while she earned more than 200,000 frequent flyer points. She was forced to repay $18,855 for taking too many flights.

The most recent accounts for Gold Pass travel between July and December last year reveal 134 ex-MPs claimed free travel — 58 lodged bills worth $5000 or more and 17 spent more than $10,000.

Abbott and Hockey have done the right thing cutting down this anachronistic scheme, but some ex-MPs, no longer accountable at the ballot box are considering a High Court challenge to keep their seats on the gravy plane. They argue this is a retrospective removal of a property right.

How indulgently out of touch can you be.