A week our leaders will want to forget

When voters walk into polling booths in roughly one million years time, by which I mean on July 2, they will be thinking about their houses, and not just because they may well resent being asked to leave them in order to head down to a polling booth.

As I’ve already argued on this august website, the choice of housing policies provides an unusually clear contrast between the two major parties on one of the most fundamental and tangible of subjects.

Our houses matter to us. They’re the stage on which we live out our lives, and are generally the most important investment we’ve made for the future.

The same is true for our politicians, except that the houses in which they live at least part of their lives are often owned by their spouses, meaning that the mortgage is helpfully paid off by us taxpayers.

This rule is far from new, but still feels iffy somehow, even though I’m unable to come up with a better system. I did briefly toy with the idea of making our leaders live in residential dorms, like the police ones where Tony Abbott lived as PM. And in fact, our politicians living among law enforcement professionals would come in handy, given the rate at which the AFP seems to investigate them.

Given the focus on housing in this most interminable of campaigns, it’s hardly surprising that our would-be leader’s own housing choices have been subjected to more scrutiny than the media devotes to Jarryd Hayne’s career plans.

(Sure, give competitive tiddlywinks a go if you must, Jarryd – just front up for this year’s Origin series, would you? There’s a good lad.)

An election this long means even more scrutiny than usual. The press corps were always going to dredge through whatever they could find to augment the dreary, stage-managed choreography of campaign events. And that’s why we’re starting to see questions about that wellspring of intriguing detail that is the Register of Members’ Interests.

I foolishly imagined that anyone running for parliament would assume that the media and their opponents would comb through these declarations, especially seeing as we are constantly being reminded that yes, they do. And yet in the past week, several politicians have been in trouble.

We’ve all learned that David Feeney has enough houses to accommodate the Federal and Victorian Parliaments, and hasn’t been declaring enough of them in the register. (We’ve also learned that his wife’s name is Liberty Sanger, which is definitely going to be the name of my election day sausage sizzle stall.

Feeney himself has been out spruiking Labor’s housing affordability plan – but if they get any more affordable, just how many is he likely to buy? And how on earth will he keep his interests register up to date then?

Then again, Feeney’s recent difficulties in this department have meant his face has been all over the news, a welcome improvement for a man long believed not to have one.

Of course the PM’s own housing situation has been an ongoing subject of conversation, too. Malcolm Turnbull has made the unusual decision to stay in his own digs rather than occupying the other harbourside mansion provided to him by taxpayers, and been dubbed Mr Harbourside Mansion by an erstwhile colleague.

But if the PM is able to keep his enormous register up to date, David Feeney ought to be able to as well.Our leader’s list runs to 38 pages, and I’ve no clue what most of them mean – a bit of Malsplaining wouldn’t be unwelcome here, to be honest, even just to inform our own investing strategies. Should we all be getting a “Zebedee Growth Fund”? And what exactly is one?

This week, the leader whose personal financial circumstances have become more of a cause for embarrassment is the Greens’ Richard Di Natale. Not only has he been accused of not declaring the family farm, but we have discovered just how little he and his wife have offered the au pairs they invited to mind their children.

Whether or not this was within the letter of the law, given the assumption that rent and board totals $300 per week, feels well shy of the point. Senator Di Natale’s ability to muster outrage at other parties’ recent equivocation over the minimum wage is surely in jeopardy when he comes across as the Otway Ranges’ Scrooge McDuck.

Seriously, can you imagine paying anyone, or a couple, a mere $150 per week to “entertain the lads and help with cooking and general domestic duties”? No matter how fine you were with them crashing at yours and having second helpings of dessert?

Okay, so the package is notionally worth $500/week – but that still means handing over a very small amount of cash in hand. It feels a bit like inviting someone over to babysit, and saying that you can deduct the rent on the sofa they napped on and the ice cream they took from the fridge.

Of course, the Greens’ pitch is that he and his colleagues aren’t just regular, self-serving politicians. Those bargain basement au pairs – sorry, “package of close to $500 for 25 hours a week including rent, meals and sundries” – may prove very expensive indeed.

Politicians already receive so many allowances and exemptions and benefits in return for doing us the honour of representing us. If they pursued corporate tax avoiders with the same vigour with which they exploited the arrangements on offer to them, the budget bottom line might look very different.

The more we hear about how wealthy people and companies structure their tax arrangements, the more it feels like members of the elite follow different rules. If most of us are expected to travel for work, our spouses don’t get to buy an extra house that our employers can pay off. Just as we can’t tell the ATO that technically, our income is generated in Ireland, so we don’t have to pay more than a couple of cents on the dollar tax on it.

Oh sure, it all complies with the letter of the law – but then, who writes the laws?

Perhaps it’s not surprising that polls are tightening and the spectre of a hung parliament is once again on the table. Perhaps the more we learn about how politicians structure their own affairs, the more we feel that we’d really rather be governed by none of the above.

And it strikes me that really, the very least our representatives could do is fill out the paperwork that details precisely what they’ve been able to buy with the generous salaries we give them. And if that’s too much trouble, ask the au pair to do it.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: