Sport lover ... Senator Stephen Conroy, centre, with NBN CEO Mike Quigley, left, and Treasurer Wayne Swan, right.Political interests database
Would you like an upgrade? Please come into the chairman's lounge for some free food and soothing muzak. And let us know if we can give you an iPad - to keep.
For most weary travellers such offers are a fantasy. Not so for our grand final-loving, globetrotting, free-trip grabbing federal politicians, who appear to be happy to fly almost anywhere and attend almost anything on almost anyone's ticket.
And as they criss-cross the globe there is usually an upgrade provided by Australia's single biggest giver of gifts to politicians - Qantas.
The sifting of two years of disclosures, in a special Herald/Age investigation, reveals the financial profile of all 226 federal politicians, including their homes, savings accounts, shareholdings and their grab-bags of gifts and trips. It shows more than politicians' liking for upgrades (almost 300), overseas trips (more than 100) and free tickets to sporting and cultural events (more than 450). However, it also suggests substantial avoidance or breaches of disclosure requirements, with more than 70 politicians failing to disclose they had accepted subscription gifts from Foxtel and Austar.
Such disclosures are a fundamental part of Australian democracy, giving voters the information to gauge whether politicians are being duchessed by big corporations and foreign interests.
By making the trips and gifts public, the disclosures are supposed to act as a counter to politicians being unduly influenced in their decision-making by large corporate interests.
An Australian National University professor who has written extensively on accountability, Richard Mulgan, says transparency is vital. "There is a very strong court of public opinion when it comes to parliamentarians," he says. "This is where transparency seems to me to be key. Politicians do live in a glass house and it's harder for them to get away with things."
But the present regime of disclosures presents many hurdles to accountability - not least because the forms are scratched in handwriting on unsearchable pages that must be examined individually.
In the words of John Uhr, a professor of politics at ANU, the present system of disclosures "has still got a kind of 'club rule' about it, where the information is registered with the club official for club purposes".
As reported in the Herald today, those glad-handing the Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy, at high-profile sports events include Channel Seven (the Australian Open), Channel Nine (Test cricket), Channel 10 (Formula One) and SBS (FIFA World Cup). Senator Conroy also declared 10 tickets to AFL games in the past two years, including eight grand final tickets.
In fact, AFL grand finals resemble a who's who of federal politics, with more than a dozen politicians attending each of the past two grand finals matches, enjoying tickets that can cost more than $2000.
Overseas trips are also popular. The disclosures reveal that federal minister Bill Shorten took a fully funded trip to Rome financed by the Italian Democratic Party. And former Tasmanian senator Nick Sherry, a one-time superannuation minister, was flown to London in April by financial services company Baker Tilly.
Considering a return business class trip to Europe costs in the order of $8500 - before any accommodation - such trips are not small change.
The patterns show the heavy influence from certain regions and certain companies. Israel and Taiwan are the biggest national supporters of trips by Australian politicians, recording 44 and 16 partly or fully funded trips respectively.
Hancock interests owned by Gina Rinehart sponsored seven trips - the most by an individual company - and controversial Chinese telecommunications company Huawei and gas giant Santos each sponsored six trips.
One freebie was a 2010 chartered flight for the Resources Minister, Martin Ferguson, to look at Hancock Coal's operations in Queensland's Galilee Basin. Another involved Hancock sponsoring Julie Bishop, Teresa Gambaro and Barnaby Joyce to travel to Hyderabad in India to attend the marriage of the granddaughter of the head of Indian industrial conglomerate GVK Group.
Australia's parliamentarians are not subject to many of the checks and balances that govern behaviour of parliamentarians in other Western democracies.
These include codes of conduct, parliamentary standards commissioners, ethics commissioners and independent oversights of the way politicians spend their expenses.
Uhr believes destructive debates surrounding the behaviour of Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper are able to flourish when there is no rule book about what is acceptable for politicians.
"The pitfalls or dangers are that it becomes, at the worst, a grossly political bunfight when public debate emerges about appropriate standards," he says.
Most politicians who accept gifts and lavish trips don't have to meet standards expected of federal public servants, whose behaviour must comply with a code of conduct.
Ministers are an exception, with their behaviour needing to meet a ministerial code of conduct. But even this code is policed opaquely by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
The requirements for politicians to reveal duchessing and the like are based on a list of necessary disclosures set down in 1984 for members of the House of Representatives and 1994 for members of the Senate, and hardly changed since. The lists of disclosure are often obscure, poorly framed and inconsistent between the two houses. For example:
Politicians have to reveal trusts they benefit from, but members of the House do not have to disclose the trust's shareholdings. Senators on the other hand must reveal trust shareholdings.
Just what constitutes a gift and what constitutes hospitality is barely defined. This is an important omission as gifts can require ministers to pay the difference out of their own pocket if the gifts exceed a certain amount.
If a gift is offered to all politicians, such as access to an airline lounge or free pay TV, no declaration is required for senators. There is no such rule in the lower house.
When it comes to spouses, there is no requirement to declare any of their interests if the politicians say they are unaware of what they own. The disclosure from the federal Transport Minister, Anthony Albanese, for example, declares that the income of his wife, NSW Labor frontbencher Carmel Tebbutt, is "not applicable". A similar stance is taken by other MPs including Paul Fletcher (his wife is Sydney jeweller Manuela Zappacosta) and Joe Hockey (his wife is investment banker Melissa Babbage).
Asked how members should address such paperwork uncertainty about spouses and the like, the chair of the privileges committee, Yvette D'Ath, said: "Members are referred to the resolution agreed by the House in 1984. " Failure to disclose gifts appropriately can rise to a "serious contempt" of Parliament. However, experts interviewed by the Herald were unaware of these sanctions ever being enforced.
onfidence in the overall state of disclosures - and their ability to provide the "glass house" envisaged by Professor Mulgan - is not helped by omissions, opaque or illegible reporting and silliness.
For example, Gary Humphries and Nola Marino, two of a six-member group who took an all-expenses-paid trip to Frankfurt paid by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, gave no disclosure of the trip. The trip - with a conservative value of $8500 a head - was billed by another participant, Joel Fitzgibbon, as supporting the "framework of NATO's widening co-operation with Partners Across the Globe".
Humphries was unavailable to answer the Herald's questions. Marino told the Herald her non-disclosure was an oversight and she had ''written to the Clerk responsible for the Register to correct this''.
Similarly, when reporting 289 flight upgrades, in more than 50 cases politicians omitted the name of the sponsor, leaving the impression of half-baked disclosure and the possibility of upgrades simply not being reported at all.
Cory Bernardi, Michaelia Cash and Stephen Parry are not saying why they felt the need to take a charter flight provided by Hancock Prospecting between Adelaide and Canberra. The trip stands out because it is not in the mix of regular company-funded charters to see whatever major resource project is being developed by whatever major resource company.
The fact a billionaire mining magnate provides an in-fill charter service (provided by ExecuJet) for a routine route for certain politicians raises Professor Uhr's interest. "If this was a regular use every time the three wanted to go to Canberra, it's worth knowing," he says. "If it's exceptional use, that's worth knowing, too."
Then there is over-disclosure being pursued to the point of silliness.
Mark Butler, the member for Port Adelaide, has made his disclosures something of a vanity publishing exercise, recording every last meeting and every throwaway gift.
Butler displays a penchant for recording meaningless gifts when he need declare only gifts above a threshold of $300 for private gifts, rising to $750 for gifts from official sources. A sample of an exhaustive list includes a cup cake ("The value of the cup cake is approximately $5"), a $5 pie and a roll of toilet paper worth $3.
The same punctiliousness is displayed by Craig Emerson as Trade Minister, who adds his own "toilet paper" disclosure to a list of moon cakes, tea sets, vases and desk diaries from his international travels.
But even such trifles offer surprising revelations. Among Emerson's disclosures are a tea set and lacquered box from Bo Xilai, described as Chongqing party secretary, and a vase from Wang Lijun, described as Chongqing vice-mayor. The gifts dating from last year show Emerson playing a bit part on his visit to Chongqing before a drama that has transfixed China.
Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, was charged and later found guilty of the murder of British businessman Neil Heyward, in a case launched after Wang took refuge in a US consulate.
Uhr supports the idea of such disclosures being made far and wide. "If it's public disclosure then the widest distribution of information to the public is a good thing," he says.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.