Keeping expense details under wraps

Political historian Barry Gustafson doubtless is right, when he says people want to know the full details of MPs’ travel expenses, such as where or why they travelled. Alf would prefer they did not know.

Every Kiwi MP is entitled to an annual $14,800 expense account. But MPs’ expenses are not detailed and are not subject to the Official Information Act.

The great benefit of non-disclosure is that it keeps prying journalists out of our hair.

Think what the media would be doing with Richard Worth’s expense claims right now, if they could comb through them item by item.

The potty Greens have been to the fore in pressing for more transparency, and have laid out their own expenses in broad terms, following the British scandal over MPs’ claims.

New rules look likely to be introduced here, as the pressure builds, but the Sunday Star-Times seems to think they won’t allow the public to know the reasons or purpose of trips, or the details of individual expenses claimed. That’s because MPs last week shied away from full scrutiny.

Green co-leader Metiria Turei seems satisfied with limited disclosure – she reckons the public is more concerned with total expenditure than details of individual claims.

But political historian and author Barry Gustafson said: “People are highly interested in what individual [MPs] are claiming on and I think . . . people would like to be assured there’s no extravagance.”

The Sunday Star-Times reported yesterday it had asked all MPs to list expenses they had claimed this year to the end of April. Only Act MPs Roger Douglas and John Boscawen provided a detailed response.

The paper said the major parties declined to co- operate, saying it was inappropriate to provide such details as the government had announced that a special cross-party committee and the Parliamentary Services Commission would develop a new regime.

Oh, and the bloody Greens – the pace-setters in this exercise in exposure – are reported to have baulked at allowing the public to know where MPs travel, the purpose of the trip or the details of any expenses they claim, whether in New Zealand or overseas.

Newly elected co-leader Turei said the public was not interested in the detail and only wished to know the total cost of all travel.

The Green Party’s nine MPs released a summary of their expenses for the first four months of 2009. Each MP provided the total cost of air travel, taxis, shuttles, rental cars and accommodation while staying in Wellington. It is a model the party hopes the cross- party group, headed by Speaker Lockwood Smith, will adopt.

Actually, Alf reckons the buggers should practice what they preach and travel by bicycle, which would reduce their claims considerably.

The total cost of air travel for the Greens’ MPs between January and April this year was $123,000, but there were no details on the purpose of the travel.

“We don’t agree that there should be a delving into the details around, say, what trips are taken where because that information isn’t necessary for the purpose of providing greater transparency,” Turei said.

“Asking about what flights were taken to which cities and on which days – that kind of information is just not necessary.”

Gustafson said politicians feared many expenses – even though they were legitimate costs of travel and accommodation – would be misinterpreted or misunderstood, “because in normal jobs you might get reimbursement for the odd trip or the odd accommodation, but this is on a much more ongoing, larger scale.”

Alf certainly fears his spending would be misunderstood, which is why he is resisting this disclosure carry-on. He especially fears Mrs Grumble might misunderstand some items on his expense claims.

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