‘I hate the word entitlement’
– Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, 13 January 2017
During the recent political scandal about MPs claiming reimbursement for non-work related travel expenses, the media has mistakenly referred to travel expenses as ‘entitlements’, thus implying that they are some sort of benefit or ‘perk‘* of office. This usage of the word ‘entitlement’ is irrational; and any argument that the reimbursement of legitimate work-related travel expenses is a perk is fallacious. It reveals a lexicological laziness on the part of journalists who pride themselves on being wordsmiths.
All employees have the right to be reimbursed for legitimate expenses incurred as a result of doing their job. Such reimbursements are not classified as income by the ATO, and they cannot logically be regarded as a ‘perk’ of office. On the contrary, if legitimate work expenses were not reimbursed, the employee would in effect be donating money to their employer.
Where such expenses are claimed for non-work related activities, they should not be reimbursed and if they have been reimbursed in error, they need to be repaid by the recipient. In this context, the use of the word ‘entitlement’ is doubly irrational.
*Cambridge Dictionary definition: An advantage or something extra, such as money or goods, that you are given because of your job e.g. ‘A company car and a mobile phone are some of the perks that come with the job’.
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‘The overwhelming majority of parliamentarians are not motivated by an intention to enrich themselves or their families. Instead, they act in what they believe to be the best interests of the electorate, cognisant that the most likely reward for their service is persistent criticism and ultimately electoral rejection. The continuity and relative strength of our parliamentary democracy is a product of their efforts and the maintenance of public confidence in their honesty. All the work of parliamentarians can be destroyed by the wilful misconduct of only some of their members. Corruption by elected representatives consumes democracies. It destroys public confidence in democratic institutions. It opens up consideration of alternative modes of government, especially those that offer an illusion of security and order.’
As a research academic, you are always aware that your research – and in some instances your entire career – depends on the decisions and opinions of “the government.” But I have to confess that exactly what “the government” meant in this context was not something I had thought much about.
Sure I understood that there is no bottomless pool of money. Nor was I ever so deluded as to think that every good person and every good project could – or even should – be supported by public funds. However, the mechanics of how decisions are made and the role that different groups and individuals play in this process was totally foreign to me.
One of the main things I gained from my two days in Canberra was a greater appreciation of how hard our politicians work. Or more importantly, how many different demands they have on their time and their attention.
After a day of talks we were all invited to a Gala Dinner where we heard from both Ian Macfarlane, Minister for Industry and Science, and the Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten.
The talks were interesting, but it was the conversation I had with the politician assigned to our table, Senator Christopher Back, that gave me a glimpse into the lives of our politicians. Just as our meal arrived, bells started ringing and lights started flashing – a signal for him to leave immediately to cast a vote. As he sat back down the bells went again and he was off one more time.
He explained that the bells (and the accompanying votes) continue from morning to late evening on each sitting day. More surprising was his comment that he is normally only able to spend 20 days a year in his local Perth office as he is either in Canberra or travailing for work the remaining time. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to perform the juggling act between work and family in the political setting.
Now, all of this is not to let the politicians off the hook. It does not reduce the need for good decisions. Rather, I now understand why we are so often encouraged to engage with the public and do everything we can to increase awareness and interest in the work being done by scientists across the country.
We are competing against so many other stories and agendas that the first task is to break into the media cycle and simply bring an issue to the attention of the public and the politicians. To then maintain their interest long enough to actually inform or persuade them is only going to be possible through the exhaustive and coordinated efforts of strong leaders.
While it is unsurprising that our Chief Scientist is an outspoken advocate of Australian science, we should all be thanking the Nobel gods that they awarded The 2011 prize for Physics to a Canberra local, who is not only passionate about supporting science, but is also one of the rare bread that seems as comfortable talking to politicians as he does with scientists.
Now we just have to cross our collective fingers that by the time the budget is announced, Professor Chubb (and all of those behind him) have done enough to convince “the government” that science matters. Or, more importantly, that those doing it are a resource that add value to this country and are worthy of support.
“For my own part I have always felt that a politician is to be judged by the animosities which he excites among his opponents. I have always set myself not merely to relish but to deserve thoroughly their censure”. – Winston Churchill at the Institute of Journalists dinner, November 17, 1906.
“John F. Kennedy had a great line in his inauguration speech pointing out that civility is not a sign of weakness. Civility is much more than the absence of shouting, much more than the veneer of a smile. It demands that we really listen and try to understand the other point of view, that when we disagree we do so without rancour and that we have respect for the other person despite the fact that they hold a different view. It is a fairly simple test, but much of what we hear in the media and from some politicians fails that test. The constant denigration of politicians as a class contributes to the diminution of our civil discourse. Of course, when a politician fails to live up to a required standard, that should be pursued vigorously. But what damages all of us is the endless undermining of our democratic institutions by the seemingly daily presentation of politicians as feckless, self-serving users. Is it any wonder that a Lowy Institute poll shows a worrying proportion of young Australians are not enamoured with democracy? The constant denigration undermines the institutions we enjoy and for which people from all corners of the earth are willing to die.” – Amanda Vanstone