By Christopher Knaus, originally published in the Guardian 15 June 2020.

Three cabinet ministers charged taxpayers more than $4,500 for an overnight trip to Sydney during which they mingled with mining and banking donors at a lucrative Liberal party fundraiser hosted by Channel Nine.

Stuart Robert, Dan Tehan and Simon Birmingham flew into Sydney on the day of the $10,000-a-head fundraising dinner last year before flying out again the following day, charging their flights and overnight accommodation costs to their parliamentary allowances.

The rules for expenses bar MPs from claiming travel where the dominant purpose is to raise funds for political parties, but all three claim they were within the rules because they were in Sydney for other parliamentary business in the hours either side of the fundraiser.

All three have repeatedly refused to say whether they were invited to the fundraiser before booking the parliamentary business that coincided.

The Channel Nine fundraising trip is just one of a number of questionable claims uncovered by a Guardian investigation into the use of MP travel allowances.

The investigation found MPs from all parties continue to bill taxpayers for travel linked to party fundraisers. Others have claimed travel to attend celebrations of the mining industry and to fly partners home from work conferences, and also say the trips were within the rules.

It is now almost five years since the infamous Bronwyn Bishop “choppergate” scandal, and more than three years since Malcolm Turnbull announced landmark reforms to independently regulate and oversee MP expense claims.

The federal government is preparing to review the legislation underpinning the MP expenses system, as well as the first three years of operation of the independent parliamentary expenses authority.

The Channel Nine event, organised by the Liberal party’s Australian Business Network, is estimated to have raised $700,000 for the Liberal party, and drew widespread condemnation from Nine’s print journalists at the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age who warned it threatened their independence.

Among other attendees were the Minerals Council chair, Helen Coonan, and the Australian Banking Association head, Anna Bligh, as well as the prime minister, Scott Morrison.

A spokesman for Robert, the government services minister, said while in Sydney he met with the National Disability Insurance Agency and its board, and held a briefing with the human services department, with consultants McKinsey and KPMG, on the department’s transition to Services Australia.

Tehan, the education minister, said he was in Sydney for the dominant purpose of visiting Western Sydney University and the Samuel Terry public school and to participate in an education forum.

The office of the trade minister, Birmingham, said he was in Sydney to meet Sydney Ports, the prudential regulator, and Export Finance Australia. He also had a live studio interview with Bloomberg.

Jane Hume, the assistant financial services minister, also attended the event and initially billed taxpayers for a Comcar to take her directly to the fundraiser. But her office said the Comcar was booked inadvertently and the money repaid the next day.

Alan Tudge, the cities minister, charged taxpayers for travel to and from Sydney and went to the fundraiser. But he was in the city for a number of days and attended ministerial events, making it less likely the chief reason he travelled was to attend the Channel Nine event.

Experts say the rules on expenses still allow considerable ambiguity, particularly for mixed-purpose trips. Stephen Charles, a former Victorian court of appeal judge and director of the Centre for Public Integrity, believes a deterrent needs to be introduced.

“It’s an age-old problem, going back beyond Bronwyn Bishop,” Charles said, speaking generally. “There are people in parliament who think they are masters of the political universe and I’m afraid until there is proper oversight and something that acts as a general deterrent against doing this, it is going to continue to happen.”

The ministers’ travel claims highlight a key problem with the expenses system, which is based on a “dominant purpose test” that looks at whether an MP’s main reason for travel was parliamentary business. Advertisement

Yee-Fui Ng, from Monash University, an expert on executive accountability and MP expenses, said the Channel Nine fundraiser was a classic example of the problem with the dominant purpose test, and exposed “the fundamental problem of ambiguity of the rules” where a politician books travel to attend party fundraisers and conduct parliamentary business.

“The legislation adopts a principles-based approach that tries to ascertain the dominant purpose of undertaking an activity,” but when an MP travels for mixed purposes that can be hard to determine, she said.

“MPs are the custodians of public power, and trust in democracy is reliant on MPs appropriately exercising their powers and responsibly managing public funds, including their travel expenses.” When Turnbull reformed the expenses system in 2017, it was done in the hope that greater transparency and oversight would foster an improved culture and restore public trust.

Turnbull set up the independent parliamentary expenses authority (IPEA) as an independent regulator, transferring the administration of expenses from the department of finance. It now helps MPs understand their obligations, provides advice on what’s acceptable, and audits and investigates claims.

“IPEA has a multi-layered approach to assurance that includes preliminary assessments, assurance reviews, audits and post-payment validations,” the authority said.

Recent studies have shown that public trust in government is at record lows, although it improved somewhat during the Covid-19 response. Just one in four Australians has confidence in their political leaders and institutions, according to the latest Australian National University survey. 

Charles said the establishment of a proper federal integrity commission was key to solving issues of integrity and restoring confidence in government. 

“All of the states have now got integrity commissions; plainly the commonwealth should have one too,” he said. “And the only party that’s opposing it is the Coalition.”