CANBERRA (Reuters) - A row over political expenses in Britain spurred questions in Australia on Wednesday, as a tabloid newspaper carried details of private homes purchased with taxpayer backing by members of parliament.
Leftist Prime Minister Kevin Rudd extended a pay freeze for politicians to judges and senior bureaucrats at the same time that the mass-selling Daily Telegraph newspaper said MPs were claiming travel expenses for living in their own Canberra homes.
“Up you for their rent,” said the Sydney-based newspaper’s headline, in a crude inference taxpayers were being saddled with living costs by their representative politicians.
The headline was placed against photographs of homes and apartments in the national capital, where Australian politicians regularly jet in from far-flung electorates to attend parliament.
Britain’s House of Commons speaker stepped down on Tuesday in the wake of an expenses scandal that has damaged the reputation of parliament amid revelations taxpayer funds were used to claim everything from manure to chandeliers and porn films.
Australian MPs, using entitlements approved by parliament, were claiming travel allowances while living in private homes purchased for use during parliamentary sitting weeks over 4-5 months of the year, the Telegraph said.
Under Australian rules, politicians can claim travel allowances for all travel away from the main residences, but a fifth of MPs and upper house senators were claiming back against Canberra homes, with taxpayers effectively subsidising mortgages.
Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner said the practice was not illegal and unlike Britain, the system was transparent because details were publicly released in parliament every six months.
“I believe that’s the appropriate system,” Tanner told state radio.
The centre-left government faces re-election late in 2010 and successive polls this week showed economic woes were denting its popularity, although Rudd was still on track to win a second three-year term.
Rudd earlier this month said Australian MPs and ministers had properly accounted for travel spending and denied trying to hide international travel expenses by releasing them at the same time as the higher-profile May 12 national budget.
“I am advised that these numbers have been released as soon as the bureaucracy has them prepared,” Rudd said.
Rudd on Wednesday extended a pay freeze on MP salaries for three months and applied it to judges and senior government officials as the country battles recession and rising joblessness, expected to near-double next year to 1 million.
Reporting by Rob Taylor; Editing by Jerry Norton