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Chris Ford: Political Hypocrisy Over Parliamentary Expenses

Chris Ford
Chris Ford

The release on Thursday of MPs travel, accomodation and expense claims makes interesting reading. In the wake of this year's jaw dropping expenses scandal in Britain, our politicians have been forced to follow suit and declare how they spend their taxpayer allocated funds. So far, we have been treated to acts of political hypocrisy in terms of these disclosures.

Take for example Sir Roger Douglas. Mid-week, Sir Roger, that political apostle of the free market was busy extolling on Radio Live the virtue of self-reliance in the wake of Paula Bennett's disclosure of the financial details of Training Incentive Allowance (TIA) applicants Jennifer Johnston and Natasha Fuller.

Then, come Thursday, this great advocate of minimal or no state assistance for the so called 'undeserving' poor had to defend himself from relevations that he and his wife took up a 90% taxpayer discount on a return trip to London which was, as he declared himself, 'a private holiday.' Douglas defended himself by saying that this was an entitlement that all former MPs (as he came out of retirement) have had and that this same deal was available for the likes of other retired ministers and PMs such as Mike Moore, Geoffrey Palmer, Helen Clark and Jim Bolger.

I found this sheer act of political hypocrisy sickening in that one day he was arguing against entitlements for the most vulnerable New Zealanders and the next he was defending taxpayer funded privileges for the reasonably well paid political elite.

Into today (Saturday) the revelations just keep on coming. Apparently Bill English (whom I saw strolling through the grounds of Otago University yesterday afternoon) is reportedly able to claim what is in effect a non-income tested accomodation supplement in the form of a $1000 per week subsidy towards the mortgage payments on his $1 million Wellington family home and on top of this he can also claim subsidies for electricity and insurance related costs at this same house. Still, he isn't poor by any means as he takes home a $270,000 gross (before tax) salary as Deputy PM and his wife is a practising GP into the bargain.

Gee, that sounds a good deal if ever there was any. I guess that the Parliamentary Service is the MP equivalent of Work and Income New Zealand (WINZ) with the only difference being that many of their entitlements are even better than those given to beneficiaries and low income workers.

And speaking of low income earners, what are the MPs from that great party of the working class, Labour, doing to oppose this abuse of largesse? Oh no, it turns out that their snouts are in the trough too.

Phil Goff it turns out is still unknown around New Zealand (and enjoying anaemic popularity ratings as a result) and with the whopping airfare bill he has run up in the last six months, you would think that he might have received a better publicity return. Not to be undone though is Chris Carter, who as Labour's new foreign affairs spokesperson has been trotting around the globe to represent the opposition at many international events (or so he says).

In opposing all this un-necessary largesse, I do still think that MPs deserve to be paid a reasonable salary as they do work hard on our behalf. I also don't begrudge the meeting of reasonable transport and other costs (but I don't count entertainment expenses in this as some can do), so long as they are run up in the course of doing genuine parliamentary work like speaking at and attending meetings and servicing the needs of their electorates or home areas (and this is why the large expense claims from rural and Maori electorate MPs are particularly justified).

Furthermore, I do understand the need for the PM and the Foreign Minister to have their international travel expenses paid when they are conducting business on behalf of this country abroad but other ministers could cut back on this and start communicating with their overseas counterparts via phone, internet and email. Moreover, I don't think it's a great idea to provide subsidised travel for MPs partners and families as while I agree that Parliament does, in the words of Lockwood Smith, 'chew up and spit out families', I would have to say that there are many ordinary families in the same situation around New Zealand who have one parent working in another centre who don't get their familial travel expenses covered so that they can join them as MPs do.

As has been the case in Britain, it's time to reform the system.

As I advocated in a blog back in January, I believe that we, the people, should approve the pay and conditions of MPs every three years in a seperate but binding referendum run in conjunction with each general election. We should also do away with travel subsidies for former PMs, their surviving spouses and those former MPs who are entitled to them so that Roger Douglas is not tempted to have another taxpayer funded holiday on us (and he would oppose any such concession if it were extended to ordinary workers and beneficiaries, wouldn't he?). Yes, we should recognise former MPs political service but in other, more affordable ways, through for example, the awarding of a Parliamentary Service Medal upon the retirement and/or electoral defeat of any MP.

These ideas should merit further study as if we don't act now, then there will be even less faith held in the transparency of our democracy when our elected representatives who run it act hypocritically to undermine it through their own actions.

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