Perks and piss-ups – the trick is to find an acceptable way of making the public pay

Another bucket of bollocks is published in the Dom-Post today, this time on the matter of MPs’ miserable spending allowances.

Vernon Small, one of the rag’s parliamentary press gallery hacks, makes it seem like he has been talking with a whistle-blower:

MPs are secretly negotiating to award themselves more generous perks.

If they were secret – you can be sure – a bugger like Small would not get to hear of them.

But there is no whistle-blower. Rather –

The behind-closed-doors talks were revealed by Auditor-General Lyn Provost in a report that found former housing and fisheries minister Phil Heatley unlawfully spent $1402 of taxpayers’ money.

As most people now know, the report led The Boss to announce he will reinstate Heatley to his Cabinet portfolios.

He said that while the spending was unlawful, the rules were very confusing.

“I think any reasonable New Zealander reading the report would reach the same conclusion I did. There was no deliberate attempt to rort the taxpayer.”

He’s right about the rules being confusing. At least, they are for members of Parliament, many of whom are not nearly as bright as Alf. Accordingly they are susceptible to falling foul of them in all innocence.

A hard-working Minister like Phil – one of Alf’s good mates, by the way – can wade through the rule-book, then say yip – he can take a holiday with his family and pay for it on his Crown credit card, but then find that maybe this was something he shouldn’t have done.

Anyway, as Ms Provost points out, Parliamentary Service had wrongly told MPs they had a right to unlimited travel for children under 5, potentially affecting 16 MPs – including Mr Heatley – who should have taken “a more conservative approach”.

Ah, ha. Poor old Phil was given bum advice.

But she then revealed that Speaker Lockwood Smith had started a process last month “to make changes to the entitlements … including changes to travel entitlements for members’ children”.

“The proposed change will remove the restrictions on travel for members’ children between the primary place of residence and Wellington” and was expected to take effect from July 1.

That is significantly more generous than the current four-trip limit. Dr Smith now intended to bring the new perk into force sooner.

Alf’s sprogs are much too old to be called children any more. Actually, they are providing him with snotty-nosed grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

More important, he wouldn’t want to cart the buggers around the country anyway.

Hence he and his family wouldn’t benefit from a change of the rules on that score.

He therefore has proposed the perks be made more generous (and useful for him) by allowing him to spend much more public money on his mates in the Eketahuna Club.

Small hasn’t mentioned that part of the negotiations in his article, so obviously he is relying only on Ms Provost for his supposed inside knowledge.

But he does say:

The change appears to be one of several MPs have been debating in secret. In recent weeks, The Dominion Post has repeatedly asked to speak to Dr Smith about this and other changes but he has refused to be interviewed.

He refused again yesterday and declined to comment on the changes, the reasons for them, or what other entitlements might be increased.

Alf wonders about the gall of these bloody reporters.

Next thing they will be demanding a seat at the cabinet table and the caucus table, where stuff the public should never find out about is often discussed.

Small goes on:

In a written statement, Parliamentary Service general manager Geoff Thorn said the service had “responded with appropriate and immediate action to a specific issue highlighted in the auditor-general’s report. Proposed amendments to the Speaker’s directions will be publicised when they are finalised in June”.

As to poor old Phil Heatley and his proneness to confusion, Ms Provost says officials had approved his “problematic spending” and it was never queried.

Take special note of that remark. The bloody officials rubber-stamped his perks.

Confusion? Or ineptitude?

Reminders to him [Heatley] to file late reports, invoices and receipts were standard ones sent to many ministers’ offices.

“We accept that the expenditure outside the rules was not deliberate on the part of Mr Heatley or his ministerial office, and that he has repaid a sum of money before we started our inquiry.”

He has also repaid expenses that were allowed.

Oh, and let the record show that Ms Provost said the rules were not simple to understand or administer,. Recommended changes will be dealt with in a later report.

His office’s total spending of $645,448 was reasonable compared with expenditure in other ministers’ offices. But $794 was outside the rules for Parliamentary Service spending and $608 was outside the rules for ministerial spending.

That included $287 during two trips to Auckland and one to Queenstown, $692 for one child’s travel between Wellington and Queenstown and $102 for rail and ferry costs for one child that Mr Heatley had not specifically repaid. However, he had reimbursed a total of $2852 compared with the $1402 spent unlawfully. “In all cases, Mr Heatley thought that the expenditure was within the rules, but he did not understand the rules correctly.”

But while the sums involved were small, the principles were important and the consequences of mistakes could be major.

Mr Heatley had a personal responsibility to manage expenditure appropriately with good judgment.

A law would have to be passed to validate the unlawful expenditure, because the money had not been properly appropriated.

Alf would like to think that Small had exhausted himself on the subject at this point. Most Dom-Post readers are prone to confusion – like many politicians – and should not be given an overdose of stuff about politicians and their perks.

But Small bangs on and on about what happened.

Perhaps he is showing an unhealthy interest in the subject because Heatley quit last month after The Dom Post broke the news that he wrongly used his ministerial credit card several times, including during a trip to the South Island with his family and during a National Party conference.

He falsely signed a declaration that he spent $70 on food and drink for him and his wife, when it was for two bottles of wine for a table at last year’s National Party conference. He said the claim was a step too far. Mr Heatley cut up his credit card and said he would take a long period on the back bench after failing to live up to his own standards.

But the auditor-general found Phil Heatley wrongly put the wine for a table of 8 to 10 people on the card.

It was “more in the nature of entertainment costs incurred in the course of parliamentary business”.

It would have been better to have regarded it as a cost covered by the $14,800 allowance given to all MPs to cover entertainment and other costs. Receipts are not required for the MPs’ allowance.

So there we have it. Instead of dipping into the public purse to pay for the plonk with one of his cards, Phil should have dipped into the public purse to pay for the plonk with his allowance.

Bugger me. Even a remarkably bright bloke like Alf gets confused at that point of the tale.

Eagle-eyed readers, of course, will have observed that Alf has a $14,800 allowance to cover entertainment and other costs.

No doubt some mean-minded bastards (and small-minded Dom-Post hacks) will be saying it’s much too much.

But hey – it works out at just $40 a day.

That might cover a few drinks in the Eketahuna Club, but there are two pubs in Alf’s patch too, and he is duty-bound to consult with his constituents in each of them.

Hence he is hoping to do a bit better from the so-called secret negotiations on perks than more generous travel rules for children (with whom he would prefer not to travel at the best of times).

Plumper perks for piss-ups would be appropriately applied to promoting a matter of great public interest, at least in Eketahuna – bribing the voters and ensuring Alf’s return to the Parliamentary trough at the next election.

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