The great expenses hush-up

Sure enough, the British scandal over political expenses and how the system has been abused has triggered a burst of curiosity from news media about who spends what in this country.

Well, let the record show none of it is used for cleaning out the moat. Certainly not at Alf’s place, and he’s sure that if other MPs have moats around their properties, they wouldn’t remain a secret for long.

The British scandal is taking a heavy toll of resignations, including Britain’s Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin (to head off a motion of no confidence in him).

In this country, David Farrer was looking at our expenses system a week ago.

He concluded:

Most of these excesses are not possible in NZ, as MPs don’t get to claim accommodation expenses except rent and interest on mortgages. But even then, we have not been lily white.

Now many readers will remember the scams by Labour’s Marian Hobbs and Phillida Bunkle from the Alliance who were claiming such expenses, despite both being Wellington based MP with homes in Wellington. Bunkle did it by claiming her primary residence was a bach just north of the Wellington boundary, and Hobbs claimed her primary residence was in Christchurch, despite having stood for Wellington Central. This made the scam legal – but not ethical.

Farrer did a splendid job of pointing out that the Bunkle/Hobbs method is not the only way an MP can benefit from the expenses claims.

He dossiered a raft of arrangements allowed for in the rules, and explained how MPs might benefit.

Alf recommends his readers go there to find out how he might fiddle the system (if he was inclined to fiddling, which he is not).

Farrer raises good questions, too, and suggests maybe a journalist could ask how many MPs are living in a place they own in Wellington, and what proportion of them are claiming the maximum $24,000 in interest payments?

The Herald on Sunday accordingly is very much a Johnny Come Lately, when it reports today:

MPs are being paid $1.8 million for work expenses, including entertainment and gifts, but refuse to account for the money.

Not a single New Zealand MP has agreed to disclose what they do with their expenses top-ups, taxi reimbursements and accommodation allowance, despite a dozen of their British counterparts losing their jobs over similar issues.

Stan Rodger, the former Labour MP who chaired a 1999 review of Parliamentary services, is calling for greater transparency around MPs’ expenses.

Parliament’s refusal to disclose its affairs through the Official Information Act was “regrettable”, he told the Herald on Sunday.

Taxpayers’ money funds the allowance system for New Zealand’s 121 MPs, but they are not required to keep any record of what they spend the money on.

The SoH points out that expense allowance levels are set by the Remuneration Authority, an independent body whose guidelines say the money is for entertaining staff and constituents, koha, gifts and even luggage.

But, after a revamp of expenses in the wake of public anger at the accommodation claims of ministers Marian Hobbs and Phillida Bunkle, the MPs no longer have to keep any record of what they spend the money on.

And with the Remuneration Authority’s expenses determination expiring next month, MPs’ allowances could soon be boosted higher.

Stan Rodger’s review of the Parliamentary Service Act, in 1999, recommended that MPs’ spending be disclosed under the Official Information Act – as ministerial and departmental costs can be disclosed. But the MPs rejected the advice, keeping their spending secret.

“That was regrettable,” Rodger said. “It would have been greatly beneficial and accountability would have been enhanced.”

It seems the SoH didn’t get far in inviting MPs to discuss their allowances – not a single member of the House agreed to answer questions submitted to them on their expenses and other benefits, including travel and accommodation.

The HoS didn’t question Alf about his expenses, for reasons best known to them.

If it had, he would have told them to bugger off – transparency is a great idea, and he is keen to promote it, but only insofar as it is applied to every other MP except him.

The SoH wraps up its article with the observations of a Dr Joe Atkinson, political scientist, who said the refusal by MPs to open the books was “self destructive” and typical of a pattern to “guard private parliamentary privileges very closely indeed”.

Atkinson said parliaments tended to act only when there were scandals, and the system needed to change.

“There is a crisis of confidence in politicians and Parliament, there is a deep distrust of the legislative system and the only way they’re going to repair that is to be pristine.”

Alf shies away from transparent, but he can do pristine. Mrs Grumble says he reeled home heavily pristine last night.

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