MIKE SMITHSON: There is no excuse for politicians ‘accidentally’ rorting their entitlements

Mike Smithson
The Nightly
Independent SA politician Fraser Ellis was found guilty of four counts of deception after rorting his travel allowance for accommodation which wasn’t for parliamentary business. 
Independent SA politician Fraser Ellis was found guilty of four counts of deception after rorting his travel allowance for accommodation which wasn’t for parliamentary business.  Credit: 7NEWS

Politicians behaving badly with our money is always a good recipe for public outrage.

When it comes to rorting the taxpayer’s purse for parliamentary travel entitlements, it gets even more intense.

South Australia has been a safe haven for some questionable activities over the past 20 years, with similar dodgy dipping almost a certainty in other Australian jurisdictions as well.

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The regulated allowance is purely to compensate those in the regions who need to travel to capital cities for official overnight business, nothing else.

Independent SA politician Fraser Ellis has just been found guilty by the Adelaide Magistrates Court of four counts of deception and is now awaiting sentencing. It followed an Independent Commission Against Corruption investigation.

In essence, the court found he rorted his country members’ travel allowance to claim $2796 for accommodation which wasn’t for parliamentary business.

He was found not guilty of another 19 similar charges.

So, what’s the big deal over a seemingly trivial amount?

If any elected member, in any parliament, knowingly claims even one dollar for which they’re not entitled, it’s wrong, wrong, wrong.

The magistrate did cut Ellis some slack by acquitting him on the majority of charges, saying they were innocent and explainable errors of memory or accounting.

As for the damning four guilty counts, they were found to be dishonest and deliberate falsehoods.

Fraser Ellis is considering appealing his conviction.
Fraser Ellis is considering appealing his conviction. Credit: 7NEWS

Mr Ellis is now considering appealing against the guilty findings prior to sentencing.

He seems surprised by the guilty verdicts, having expected to be fully acquitted.

Any appeal may be successful, or it may be dismissed, leading to a harsher sentence. Who knows?

That’s where my pleasantries end.

In 25 years of covering State politics, I’ve lost count of the real or perceived rorting instances by elected members.

Vague parliamentary rules allowed them access to tens of thousands of dollars each year, which were largely unaccountable.

MPs across the country who claim they lose track of their travel dates and then try to justify incorrect claims are taking taxpayers for fools.

Another SA politician, also caught up in the so-called travel rort scandal, justified his blunders with a simple explanation of “populating his diary incorrectly”, leading to 12 nights of false accommodation which he paid back.

He’d claimed expenses in SA and simultaneously for an overseas study trip.

Go figure.

Their entitlements can only be for a prescribed number of nights in any calendar year.

They have staff who should be able to check and verify their travel and accommodation arrangements with the click of a computer key.

In Ellis’ case, the magistrate concluded one claim was to attend a wedding and drinks with former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett.

How could the SA politician possibly mistake that for an official or claimable event?

Mike Smithson is a political reporter and presenter for Seven News in Adelaide, South Australia, Australia. He has been a political reporter for Channel 7 News for the past 12 years.~|~|6YtI85jSTp
Mike Smithson. Credit: supplied

It now puts Ellis’ parliamentary future under a cloud if he’s convicted of a criminal offence, namely defrauding the taxpayer.

Even then he could be re-elected in a by-election with his healthy, existing margin in his Yorke Peninsula seat of Narungga.

Politicians behaving badly come in various forms.

Former NSW Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid also fell foul of ICAC and was jailed in 2016 for corruption in relation to property leases, water, and mining licences.

He misused his position as an MP to benefit his family’s financial interests.

As a result, he was sentenced to five years behind bars.

Over the political journey, I’ve just about seen the lot.

Another SA politician claimed a trip to Hawaii was to study wave action on the beach.

His official report back to Parliament was a menu from the hotel in which he and his wife had been luxuriating.

Most elected members are scrupulously honest and play by the rules, especially with such a vigilant, official watchdog now patrolling corrupt activities.

But if they and their staff can’t keep track of their movements and legitimate claims during official duties then they shouldn’t be there.

Anecdotally at least, the country members allowance was always seen as a perk of the job and always claimed in full, legitimately, or not, without question.

One MP once told me it was a useful way of paying for their children’s private school education.

But every dollar rorted from the public purse is a dollar that could be spent on health, electricity or easing other cost-of-living pressures.

Let’s hope those still trying to rort what they can don’t sleep well at night.

Mike Smithson is chief reporter and presenter with 7NEWS Adelaide.

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