Travel allowance rules should change for MPs who own Canberra property: former senator

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Travel allowance rules should change for MPs who own Canberra property: former senator


More than one in four federal parliamentarians own a property in the nation’s capital, prompting a former senator to criticise the travel entitlements system, which allows MPs to claim taxpayer funds to stay in houses or flats they or their colleagues own.

Federal MPs and senators have to be in Canberra regularly, for the roughly 20 parliamentary sitting weeks a year, as well as other events such as cabinet meetings.

Former senator Rex Patrick said it was unethical for parliamentarians to claim the taxpayer-funded travel allowance to pay off their or their colleagues’ mortgages.Credit: Rohan Thomson

To help cover the cost of that travel, parliamentarians are entitled to claim a $310 allowance for each night they spend in Canberra. The travel allowance is paid regardless of the type of accommodation, meaning it is paid whether MPs choose to stay in a hotel or a dwelling owned by themselves or a colleague.

Nearly 24 per cent of MPs and about a third of senators own property in the ACT, analysis of their register of interests showed, excluding representatives from the territory.

Some MPs claim their Canberra property as a secondary residence, while others hold it as an investment, and some of those investments are rented out to other MPs or senators.

Rex Patrick, a former Centre Alliance senator for South Australia, said he was aware of the practice of politicians renting out their Canberra properties to other members of parliament when he was in the Senate from 2017 to 2022.

Patrick said while it was reasonable for politicians travelling great distances to have a secondary residence in Canberra, or an investment property, using taxpayer money to help pay down their mortgages did not pass the pub test.

“There’s nothing wrong with buying an investment property. That in itself is OK. But to factor in taxpayer contributions to that investment property is, in my view, unethical,” he said.

Excluding Canberra-based parliamentarians, 60 MPs and senators own property in the ACT, including Defence Minister Richard Marles, who owns a property just across the ACT border in Queanbeyan.

Just over half of those parliamentarians (33) are Labor, and the rest are Coalition. No independents or Greens own Canberra properties.

Patrick said the rules should be changed.

“The government prevents politicians employing relatives, and that’s done in order to avoid the perception of nepotism,” he said.

“This is, in effect, property nepotism. And it would be appropriate for the government to place restrictions on it.”

Senators and MPs with ACT properties who were contacted by the Herald would not comment on what the main use was for their Canberra property.

Some politicians, such as Sydney Labor backbencher Michael Freelander, who has an ACT property under his spouse’s name, claim a daily travel allowance of $310 a day when they are in Canberra.

The allowance can be claimed only at a commercial rate, which requires a receipt for the accommodation to be provided to the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority.

Politicians, such as Nationals MP Darren Chester, also use their ACT residence as a share house for colleagues when parliament is sitting.

Political share houses have been around for a long time. Former treasurer Joe Hockey owned a Canberra house that many Liberal MPs called home over 18 years during sitting weeks. Former opposition leader Brendan Nelson famously stayed in the detached garage.

Patrick said it was reasonable for politicians to be reimbursed for the real costs of travel and accommodation in Canberra but the public might be sceptical when they learned it could be used to pay down mortgages.

“However, ethical questions arise in circumstances where politicians utilise taxpayers’ money to pay for accommodation to which they or their colleagues are a beneficiary,” he said.

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