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Let’s avoid an expenses side-show

Written By: - Date published: 9:36 am, June 11th, 2009 - 30 comments
Categories: corruption, Parliament - Tags:

Most people with an interest in politics will have heard about the expenses scandal in the UK. Their system allowed rorts of all shapes and sizes to take place – MPs’ expenses were not questioned because they were Honourable Members. Intense scrutiny has proved quite a few of them otherwise.

Could this be happening here? Does it matter and should you and I be concerned? The total expenses bill is $14 million annually. We can’t get the details of this because spending is managed by Parliamentary Services, which is exempt from the Official Information Act. The upshot is we don’t know who spends what on taxis, flights, food and accommodation.

And I don’t want to. I can’t be certain that every cent is well spent, 100% in line with the intent of the law. But we have a robust system as Colin Espiner states “But fortunately in this country we have a system whereby all payments are only made upon receipts, all must be first checked by party whips before they are submitted, and there are a limited number of categories under which MPs can claim anything.”

Why not go more open, transparency’s always good right? Yeah, if the media wouldn’t act like children. Several mornings ago I had to listen to the inane, yet inevitable: a reporter asking Metiria Turei why she flew on aircraft since she was in the Greens. Equally stupid would be asking Boscawen why he used our National Carrier.

Can you imagine what it would be like all if MPs’ expenses were published? I would just about be happy to pay my share of the $14 million, even if I know some was misappropriated, if it would spare me from the interminable questioning that will result from expenses being released to the media. There would be no limit to the stories that would result every time expenses were explained: MP X spent $6,500 on flights in the last three months, but MP Y spent three times that! Scandal! Three weeks later it is pointed out MP X is based in Napier, MP Y has constituents in the Chatham islands.

How much time would our MPs spend defending themselves from these manufactured scandals? What would be missed because the media were focussed on the low-hanging fruit? You only need to look at how Worth has dominated the news while what Hide is proposing to do to councils across NZ slips under the radar to get an idea of what neverending expenses stories can deflect attention from.

Here’s a worrying thought: does this mean I trust MPs more than the media? Well, perhaps not – but I would rather see the media attend to the issues of substance, and avoid the sideshows.

30 comments on “Let’s avoid an expenses side-show”

  1. Graeme 1

    Do you want to know how much the CEO of NZ Post spends on accomodation, or the deputy assistant head of pen and pencil procurement for the Minister of Something spends on bics?

    Neither do I. But I’m entitled to ask under the OIA, and they have to have a good reason not to tell me. Should we amend the law so that spending of this sort isn’t subject to public scrutiny?

    • Maynard J 1.1

      Is there any way to amend the law in favour of disclosure from the Parliamentary service that would not lead to the obvious outcome?

      The CEO of NZ post can do their job in the circumstances – I am not sure that the same holds true for MPs, though I realise that is not justification to be excluded from the OIA in of itself.

      • Graeme 1.1.1

        Probably not.

        But I’m not sure it would be as bad as you think. The UK has had this for a couple of years. There were a few stories about flights and taxis a few years ago, but then people got over it. There were even questions about why MP X wasn’t spending money, wasn’t he doing his job properly, etc.

        For a year or two this will be something. People won’t be up in arms and then we’ll all get over it. And then, like the special dinner prisoners get at Christmas (the same as usual except with a Christmas mince pie) there will be a three or four paragraph story once a year about the big spenders. Unless something big happens. Personally, I’d like not to have to rely on leaks to find out that MPs are erroneously claiming the out-of-town allowance despite living in Wellington.

        • Rich 1.1.1.1

          I agree with Graeme. People will tire of it, unless there’s something exciting the MPs have been up to like visiting Hawaii five times a year.

          (Does Annette King get out to the Chathams much?)

          • Maynard J 1.1.1.1.1

            That is a lot of faith to put in the media – and a lot of people would enjoy these silly ‘scandals’. There is no ‘right’ amount of spending so whoever spent more than most would find themselves wasing a lot of time explaining.

            I also consider it akin to polls – somewhat interesting, but not news, yet they drive half the stories in the build up to an election at the expense of real news.

            There is probably no way around it though

          • Graeme 1.1.1.1.2

            I don’t need faith. If they run stupid stories, they run stupid stories. We shouldn’t ban them from running stupid stories.

            This is pretty much the argument being run: people are spending public money, but if we let people ask what they’re spending public money on, the media might be irresponsible with that information, and run articles which are shrill and over the top, and detract from real stories.

            You could almost make the same argument about bills. They’re proposing to pass a law that will affect is, but if we let people know what bills the government is proposing, then the might be irresponsible with that information, and run articles which are shrill and over the top, and detract from real stories…

  2. Tigger 2

    I agree, no more sideshows. I swear, it’s like watching TV while the house burns down around you… At some point the public will wake from this slumber and realise they’ve been utterly dorked – and that’s when they will punish those who did the dorking.

  3. I don’t necessarily think all parties should have to make a big song and dance about releasing the information, but it makes sense for it to not be exempt from the OIA.

  4. StephenR 4

    Why would anyone care that Boscawen was travelling Air NZ? It’s one airline company among many, provides a service in exchange for money like all the others…

  5. StephenR 5

    The Greens make a point of consuming less, that including flying, so it’s a legitimate question for Turei. ACT make a point of less state ownership of most things, especially explicitly commercial enterprises, but i hardly think that extends to discouraging use of state-owned services. Indeed he’d be mad not to use whatever provides the best prices…

    • felix 5.1

      “The Greens make a point of consuming less, that including flying, so it’s a legitimate question for Turei.”

      I think the point was that she was being asked why she travelled by air at all.

      So unless you seriously think Green mps should travel by horse and carriage (and just think of the methane emissions!) then it’s hardly legitimate. Certainly no more so than the Boscowan hypothetical. (Hint: they’re both absurd).

    • Rich 5.2

      Given that MPs are required to be physically around parliament and expected to visit the rest of the country, I can’t see how Green or any other MPs can avoid flying.

      Introducing video confererencing for parliament would be one solution, maybe.

  6. Maggie 6

    Oh, dear. Some people’s brains couldn’t be prised open using a pneumatic drill.
    Turei should, of course, walk everywhere. Boscawen should travel only with privately-operate companies, Shearer only with state run ones and Melissa Lee only in a chaffeur driven limo.

    • Maynard J 6.1

      The ALCP candidate would have to ride in the canni-bus, but Judy Turner would be in trouble – trying to go up the middle of the road every time. Presumably the Destiny candidate would rely on faith, and Tamaki’s Harley.

  7. VT aka daVince 7

    Here’s a worrying thought: does this mean I trust MPs more than the media? Well, perhaps not – but I would rather see the media attend to the issues of substance, and avoid the sideshows.

    Okay, so much for you then.. so now what about the steal deals..? The watchables, the omitted, the committed (on behalf)..

    Instance: under a public/private partnership (PPP) where someone for instance travels freebie to pick up a briefcase full o’ private ‘congregation’ cash at an airport someplace.

    Knowing who they’re meetin’ is pretty relevant in these cases I’d say… and no way is this sort of thing just on the movies.. hell those guys have gotten it from real.. from crime scenery of so many ilks these days..

  8. Maggie 8

    Before left the editor’s chair at the Dom Post to become head honcho of the Newspaper Publishers Association, Tim Pankhurst was quoted as describing producing a newspaper as “like being in show business.”

    Sez it all, really……

  9. burt 9

    Dear Guest post

    Please open your wallet for me to take what I want and please trust me that I have spent it well and in your best interests. On that note – in your best interests I won’t bother counting what I take or telling you what I spent it on because then I would have less to spend on myself your best interests.

    Lovely that you agree being accountable is a hassle – now go back to sleep.

  10. Anita 10

    Guest poster,

    Can you make any argument at all that MPs expenses should be protected from the OIA?

    You seem to be claiming that they should be, but your grounds have nothing to do with the rights or wrongs of releasing them, it’s simply a grizzle about the media’s behaviour. While that grizzle is justified it has nothing to do with the ethics or principles underpinning transparency. The fact that you’re arguing against transparency for entirely irrelevant and spurious grounds makes you sound like any member of the current National and ACT parties.

    BTW I am kinda disturbed about an argument against transparency being posted without attribution on a “labour movement” blog as, by not claiming the opinion as your own, you imply that it is the view of The Standard, and therefore the wider labour movement. I, for one, seriously doubt that there are many in the labour movement who are against transparency.

    • Eddie 10.1

      Anita, it’s clearly not the view of The Standard. Only articles published with “The Standard” as the author are the view of The Standard. This was a guest post sent in by a regular commenter here who preferred to remain anonymous so as to avoid abuse for expressing an unpopular opinion. We decided to respect that.

      The Standard is a forum for people to express their individual views, and that includes an increasing number of readers and commenters. It doesn’t claim to speak for the entire labour movement, it’s simply a forum for people with labour movement values to express their opinions. These will often differ.

      For the record, I’m in favour of making parliamentary services subject to the OIA. Just haven’t got round to writing anything about it yet as I find the whole issue kind of boring.

      I know you’ve got your own blog and all, but as always you or anyone else is welcome to write a counter piece as a guest post here.

      • Anita 10.1.1

        🙂 Yeah, I guess part of my problem is that this post doesn’t have a sign-off on it (which most gues post’s do) so it feels less OpEd and more TS-line. If that makes any sense as a distinction 🙂

  11. Bryce Edward’s very good post on this.

    We very much need to know their expenses. It begs the question are they spending our money to keep themselves in power? The fact that MP’s are reluctant to open up the expenses would suggest they have something to hide.

    • VT aka daVince 11.1

      I didn’t get BE’s blog yet.. your point is well-stated on power retention and ‘hide’.

      I would be terribly miffed, I would, if any such member was doing both.. as funding a strip-joint chain across the land.. for instance.. (just because they aint recession-proof stateside)…

  12. Maynard J 12

    Anita: there are precedents for privacy and confidentiality in law, when the cost of revealing information outweights society’s desire for openness and transparency (not a financial cost), and in other situations where privacy and confidentiality are a core requirement of maintaining the effectiveness of a service.

    Examples of the first type are evidence/witness supression and media censorship (as in ratings/banning of offensive material). Examples of the second type are lawyer/client, doctor/patient privilege, the activities of the GCSB/SAS.

    Interestingly enough (I read the Espiner article) the claim by MPs is that they need this confidentality in order to best represent their constituents:

    “The claim has always been that MPs need to protect their privacy and that of their constituents. And I guess it’s fair that not every single flight and hotel needs to be itemised.”

    That does not sit well with me. Knowing that my MP flew up to my electorate would not be a violation of that privacy.

    I doubt that MPs could openly argue that revealing their expenses would hinder their abilities to be MPs, but I think it could be the case – whether this is enough to justify an OIA exemption is the point, I guess (tying in your point about the complaint with the justifications).

    If there are serious doubts about MPs’ expenses, then the first problem must be with the validation of those expenses. The article leftrightout linked to was a good example of that at a glance.

    • Anita 12.1

      *nod*nods*

      The solution I have, however, is the OIA 🙂 The OIA as it stands has lots of protection for privacy, security, maintenance of law, commercial sensitivity and so on. So extend coverage of the OIA to MP’s expenses (and other parliamentary information) and let the usual protections take care of it. If the extension were to identify the need for a new class of protection, then create the new class.

      We should trust the OIA, we should believe in the principle of transparency.

  13. Eddie 13

    I see that following Anita’s comments No Right Turn’s now running a post called “The Standard vs Transparency”.

    A more accurate headline would be “The Standard publishes guest post”, but nevermind.

    Makes you wonder whether it’s worth publishing unpopular opinions if you’re going to be accused of crimes against transparency just for allowing the debate.

  14. jarbury 14

    I think it has been a good post in that it’s produced some very interesting discussion about the pros and cons of expenses disclosure, rather than everyone just jumping on the same bandwagon.

    While I am a big fan of disclosing expenses, I do also understand the potential for the media to jump on stuff that is actually pretty fair enough. We saw a little bit of that when the Greens disclosed their expenses.

    However, even though these concerns are legitimate I think that people would fairly quickly realise what expenses are normal and necessary, and what (if anything) is out of order. It will certainly ensure the MPs keep their houses in order. And if it makes them extra-cautious then that’s OK. It’s less of my tax dollars being spent after all.

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