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Rolling back transparency

Written By: - Date published: 8:17 am, October 30th, 2010 - 41 comments
Categories: accountability, Parliament - Tags: , ,

Neither major party has a particularly proud record on encouraging transparency with respect to MPs’ spending. But The Greens certainly got something moving last year:

MPs’ expense accounts are likely to be opened to public scrutiny after a face-saving move by Prime Minister John Key led to an urgent cross-party meeting being called. Party representatives will meet this week to discuss ways of giving more details on how MPs use their $14,800 expense accounts and accommodation and travel allowances. …

The turnaround came after the Green Party promised to disclose its MPs’ expenses spending each year. Act and the Maori Party followed suit.

National made the best of a bad deal of course, piling on to the cases of inappropriate spending by Labour MPs, trying to minimise its own cases, and claiming credit for opening up the accounts. Some editorials, and the usual National spinsters, made a big issue of this “new transparency”. At the time I did wonder how long it would last.

Turns out, not so long. The roll back of transparency has begun:

MPs’ overseas travel costs to be secret

MPs’ international travel expenses will now be kept secret after a ruling by parliament’s Speaker.

The issue of MPs’ private travel blew up last year after it was revealed Act MP Rodney Hide took his girlfriend on a taxpayer-funded $50,000 trip. Under the new rules, the Speaker will only reveal the total amount spent by MPs on private travel and not give a breakdown for each MP.

Sounds like a cover-up!

But the Speaker denies that is a cover-up.

Oh, sorry, my mistake. Not a cover-up at all.

Under the new system, the likes of Hide and Chris Carter would have been spared the intense public scrutiny they got when it emerged they had clocked up big international travel bills with their partners at their sides.

Well there’s the heart of the matter. I think that in both cases the public was entitled to know. I also think that the subsequent witch hunt of Chris Carter was entirely over the top and a disgrace to the media that participated in it (Lockwood Smith appears to agree). But there doesn’t seem to be any way of having the transparency without opening the door to the possibility of the witch hunts. So which is the lesser evil?

Despite the risks of Carter-style persecution, I have to come down on the side of transparency. This move to start rolling it back is a mistake.

41 comments on “Rolling back transparency”

  1. ghostwhowalksnz 1

    What is it about Kiwis and international travel. In the US some state politicians hardly leave their state let alone the country on official business.
    But no, from local bodies to Ministers they must rush overseas to a conference of nobodies or see the latest pedestrian precinct in Prague.

    The roll back of transparency will continue, bit by bit. Covered up by the bland moniker of ‘speakers rulings’, when they are really orchestrated at the highest political levels.

    • And with the technological options available now, there’s less justification than there ever was. Maybe it’s time an independent body, with a majority of ordinary citizens, approved MPs’ travel and at least had the right to officially comment on that of Ministers.

      But (to return to the original post) the “Carter witch hunt”?!

      It’s not a witch hunt if she’s living in a gingerbread cottage, rides a broomstick and eats small children. Sometimes it really is a witch.

      • Ari 1.1.1

        Well, if there’s a genuinely independant authority responsible for approving travel costs, that’s probably the best solution all-round, but it might be a bit inefficient to do that compared to just releasing MPs costs and responsibilities.

  2. Armchair Critic 2

    Too right, r0b. The information needs to be published to allow voters to hold their representatives to account, and to assist them decide on how to vote. This is another step away from open and democratic government.
    A lump sum figure for parliament is just too broad. At least the figure needs to be broken down by party. Of course, for one person parties this would also be individual data, which leads us back to releasing individual data.
    Here’s a thought, party leaders can release individual data for their MPs. Didn’t the Green party do this? Were Labour to do so it would put pressure on National to do the same.
    My vote is up for grabs. Openness on individual MPs expenses will influence my vote.

  3. Seems obvious that it was more about politics than transparency.

    Out Labour’s Ministerial expenses which those Ministers had little or no expectation that spending would ever be publicised – especially Shane’s blue movies (which was already rumoured due to a suspected leak from Ministerial Services) – why otherwise be so keen to lift the veil, take some self-damage so it doesn’t all look one way – Heatley and co, and then cover it back up so the Right Honourable Doctor can go on holiday.

    I would encourage the Goffice to come out with a policy promising a Labour Speaker would permanently restore the transparency around MPs spending. If this requires a small adjustment of salary to compensate, so be it.

    • Olwyn 3.1

      Yes, it does look that way, and it makes what happened to Shane Jones and Chris Carter all the more terrible, especially since both paid back personal expenses on their credit cards, and any spending they did beyond that was approved and within the rules.

      While transparency seems like a good idea, it is easier to be transparent about numbers than contexts: some ministerial jobs require more overseas travel than others, and even within the same ministerial job, there will be times when overseas travel is in order and times when it is not. Those who work for the media see no need to make such distinctions unless there is a politically expedient reason for doing so, instead preferring to roar, “Twenty thousand dollars! Of your money!” and similar.

    • Pascal's bookie 3.2

      I would encourage the Goffice to come out with a policy promising a Labour Speaker would permanently restore the transparency around MPs spending.

      Not sure he could do that. He could however say that while he is leader of the parliamentary LP, Labour party MPs will be expected to front up to the public with their expenses. There is nothing stopping the PM doing the same as the Leader of the parliamentary NP. No doubt he is going to get right on that, given his public frustration about the speaker’s ruling.

  4. Armchair Critic 4

    Seems that Mr Key does not support Lockwood’s roll-back
    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/politics/news/article.cfm?c_id=280&objectid=10684086
    He’s quoted as saying
    …personally I’ve been of the view that transparency is a good thing. As Prime Minister I’ve tried to lead that charge when it comes to transparency and on that basis I made those feelings clear“, and
    The reality is we have worked on a process where we’ve opened up MPs’ expenses, and now in a way it will at least look to the public that we’re closing the door slightly
    Good call.
    He can back that up by releasing his MP’s individual expenses.

    • ghostwhowalksnz 4.1

      The rest of the pollies would say Key can afford to be ‘transparent’.
      If he really believed this rather than being spin it would not have happened.
      Was he really out voted by English , Brownlee?

    • Dont fall for this con job by the Nats !.They win hands down .Their perks are kept secret but Mr Goody Key thinks they should not be ,. What a lovely man . Bloody hell is the country that dumb .Im afraid so.

    • gobsmacked 5.1

      Key relies on voters being dumb. Joe Bloggs duly obliges.

      Politics 101: Be against something the public are against, when you don’t have responsibility for it. Free hit.

      Of course Key is for “transparency”, when it’s the Speaker’s decision. Key isn’t for transparency, when it’s his own call. Like National Party funding, for example. Or Richard Worth.

      • Nick C 5.1.1

        So – you’re going to apply that critique to the labour opposition? They have no responsibility for government policy, perhaps they are doing what you claim key is doing here on issues like foriegn investment, GST?

        • Colonial Viper 5.1.1.1

          Yeah except Key makes more rapid and deeper changes to his policies and statements based on the latest polls. Hence more poll driven with less of an overarching plan or vision.

        • gobsmacked 5.1.1.2

          Don’t play dumb, Nick. You aren’t, nor am I.

          John Key is not aiming to become the Speaker. An opposition party aims to become the government. Ergo, comparison meaningless.

        • Ari 5.1.1.3

          There’s a difference between populism and simply changing your mind. Populism is when you don’t have any principles, changing your mind is when you apply them differently because other people have convinced you of the merits of doing so.

          Populism is dumb, (because there’s no guarantee you get good or useful ideas) but changing your mind in accordance with principles is fine.

  5. Anthony C 6

    I’m in two minds… the whole ‘expenses’ sideshow is an unnecessary distraction when it would be more productive for the public/media to be focusing on policy. Conversely it’s important to know this information especially with hypocrites like Rodney Hide projecting a ‘perk busting’ persona whilst troughing to the highest order.

  6. ianmac 7

    I am confused. There are two sorts of travel for MP’s.
    1. Travel in relation to official trips.
    2. Travel as a “perk” as for Hide after x years of service and paid for from a fund made up from MP salaries.
    As I understand it it is the private travel “perks” that will be kept secret. Yes?
    (It would be total hypocrisy and plain wrong to make the official trips secret.)

    • bobo 7.1

      Didn’t Hide mix so called business with pleasure so its not even a case of just an MPs holiday.

      -Hide said the main reason for his trip was work and the Cabinet paper he wrote on the issue showed that.

      Mr Hide used his Parliamentary Service travel budget to pay for his girlfriend, getting around a ruling by Mr Key that Ministerial Services money could not be used for such trips during the recession.

  7. vto 8

    Lockwood Dipstick must think we can’t see through his weasel words and excuses. Bloody pathetic.

    Why is it that every new bunch of hicks who occupy the seats of power so quickly think themselves something special?

  8. Colonial Viper 9

    Lockwood Smith was pretty clear that MPs pay out of their own salaries into a collective fund for their ‘travel perks’. And that the ‘perks’ paid back out to MPs as a group are frequently much less than what the fund receives over the course of a year from their individual contributions. Is this not correct? If there are areas which need to be focussed on in terms of transparency, I would have thought that this was near the bottom of the list, roughly on the same level as knowing what Parliamentary Services spend their social club contributions on and who went to the events to benefit from their individual personal contributions.

    At the top of the list for issues of transparency – Ministerial OIA performance.

    edit – ianmac I see you made the point I was trying to make

  9. bobo 10

    So Key makes out he is against the roll back of transparency, what a con, he hates transparency as was the case with Richard Worth need to know affair, his conflict of interest trans-rail shares, investments in uranium, Warner’s commercial confidentiality bollocks, Nat Party donation trusts, so he can distance himself from Lockward with a statement and if the public becomes so outraged he can come in as the savior to change it back.. This was announced when he is out of the country, typical.

    • Inventory2 10.1

      bobo – who made the push for greater transparency? Hint: his first name starts with J, and his last name starts with K

      • Colonial Viper 10.1.1

        Key’s led the charge? Oh thats why NAT Ministerial OIA performance has been shite.

      • gobsmacked 10.1.2

        Can we have some transparency about the National party’s backers then?

        Oh, and there was a generous gift from the taxpayers on Thursday which doesn’t seem very “transparent”. Why won’t Key tell us how much he handed over?

      • Draco T Bastard 10.1.3

        It was the Greens – nothing to do with NACT at all. They just followed suit when they realised that the public were going to demand it.

  10. Jeremy Harris 11

    Why does it always suprise the fans of big government on this blog when the politcians ensure they get higher salaries and a bigger trough..? Their is no difference between Labour and National when it comes to rorting us…

    Yet your solution is to increase their power… It boggles the mind…

  11. Jim Nald 12

    So where are the responses and what are the policy intentions of parties from the progressive Left?

    Oh, Newsroom shows Meteria commenting:

    “Green Party Co-leader Metiria Turei is calling on the Speaker of the House Dr Lockwood Smith, to promote genuine transparency over MPs expenses in the wake of his announcement to change the current expenses disclosure regime.”

    Where is Labour? Anderton?
    And perhaps Maori Party?

  12. They must be ice-skating in Hades today; I agree with r0b. Dr Lockwood Smith has made a great fist of the Speaker’s role, to pretty much universal acclaim in the House, Trevor Mallard possibly excepted. But he’s got this one wrong IMHO.

  13. ianmac 14

    I think that Lockwood is the best Speaker yet and I am pretty sure that Trevor would support that view. Not sure that some Nat Ministers would agree though since for the first time ever he is usually successful in getting answers to improved questioning.

    • Colonial Viper 14.1

      Lockwood telling Bill English that he was tempted to send that member out of the House – but that it would be somewhat unfair to do so since all the MPs/Ministers had been playing up on that day – really won my respect. Balanced and forthright. Rare enough qualities.

  14. Draco T Bastard 15

    I think that in both cases the public was entitled to know.

    The public always has a right to know how our money is spent.

    • ianmac 15.1

      Not so sure about that Draco. If we are not careful we make it hard for any action to take place.
      Analyse every word spoken by MPs and we get wooden non-committal answers.
      Analyse every dollar spent and you get over-cautious timid action.

      And think of the damage done to the big picture by quibbling over a few insignificant sums spent on the trivial. I don’t care if flowers were bought by taxpayers money, or whether they went business class or not, – and so on.

      • Draco T Bastard 15.1.1

        The economy, within the renewable resource base, is a zero sum game and no amount of printing money will change that. Given this fact then we need to know if the resources available are being used appropriately. Ergo, we need to know how and why our “money” is being spent.

        i.e. Is there a viable reason for us to presently have a few MPs and their support staff in Canada?

        And think of the damage done to the big picture by quibbling over a few insignificant sums spent on the trivial.

        The quibbling over a few was a beat up by the MSM and shouldn’t have happened and, IMO, wouldn’t have happened if the expenses had been open before hand. We certainly haven’t had anything like it since.

        • Colonial Viper 15.1.1.1

          i.e. Is there a viable reason for us to presently have a few MPs and their support staff in Canada?

          Not to minimise your concerns DTB, but to me this is still ‘nickel and diming’ it. Billion dollar roads, Cullen fund mismanagement which is going to cost us billions over a few years, NZD speculation by foreign players costing our exporters up a billion or more annually, tens of thousands of MoE and teacher time taken up by trying to sort out and implement National Standards, thousands of NZ born graduates fleeing overseas every year for long term work….

          Spending $50K on Lee and Fenton going to Canada really doesn’t register with me, and maybe they might bring some good stuff back for the country, tangible and intangible.

  15. Tanz 16

    Why should it be up to the Speaker, anyway? MP’s travel exprenses should always have been transparent, and Lockwood Smith just lost my respect, I thought he was one of the good guys.

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