Today’s parliamentary entitlements puzzle their recipients as much as those who administer them, just as they did in 1953 when the Commonwealth Parliament dispatched a dozen backbenchers to the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth.

The muddle arose because few of the politicians had ever been abroad except to fight a war, and because the travel clerks did not spell out that the allowance had to cover all expenses. Hence, they told Labor Senator Justin O’Brien (Tas.) that he could divert his entitlement to return via Canada but did not impress on him that he would have to meet any excess.

Nine months later, the Speaker, Archie Cameron, set an example by returning a third of his £1000 allowances.

By contrast, a fellow South Australian, Alex Downer (father of the present Minister for Foreign Affairs) objected to repaying £42 13s 6d. He accused the public servants of being “cheeseparing and unreasonable”. On putting this “trifle” (three times the basic wage) before the Prime Minister, his leader’s private secretary administered “the reproof valiant”.

Labor member John Mullens employed Italian friends in Melbourne to secure a special fare to Naples, but neglected to organise a cheap return. To relieve discomfort in his leg, he hired a car to drive him from Suez to Port Said for £30 while his liner chugged along behind. Taxis around Dublin cost a little less. Back in Footscray, Mullens received a bill for £304 11s 2d. To say that he was “shocked and surprised”, he appealed to the prime minister, would be “an understatement”.

When a new official inherited the bad debtors file in February 1955, he advised against further trying “the patience of the Rt Hon the Prime Minister by attempting to use him a debt collector”. Instead, he proposed that Menzies authorise cancellation of the outstanding amounts to satisfy the Auditor-General.

Menzies concurred, initialing the file “Quieta non movere”, which, for this purpose, he interpreted as “Let us pay and look pleasant”.