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Peter Wilson: Sunlight Is A Good Disinfectant

Peter Wilson
Peter Wilson

One good thing will come from the ministerial spending fiasco, and that is they aren't likely to break the rules again.

It has been a horribly humiliating experience for some, and the cavalier attitude that ministers' offices have when dealing with Ministerial Services runs through the whole stack of documents that were released to the media.

With the exception of Prime Minister John Key's office this year, none of them were in any way diligent when it came to sending in returns. Ministerial Services was treated like a servant, often with apparent contempt.

It has no teeth, and maybe it should be given some.

Key, who is in charge of Ministerial Services, suggests it should cut up the credit cards of those who misuse them. An excellent suggestion which should be put into practise.

Ministers would find that humiliating as well, and a dose of humility wouldn't go amiss with some of them as this exercise has shown.

Some are still justifying the way they broke the rules and used their ministerial cards for personal purchases, arguing there was nothing wrong because they paid the money back.

That isn't what the rules say. They weren't supposed to use them that way.

One of the more plausible excuses has been that it is difficult to separate personal items on a hotel bill. Much less plausible is that they didn't have their personal credit cards with them when they went overseas.

And here is an odd thing. Helen Clark was prime minister for nine years and, with the exception of foreign ministers, she made more overseas trips than anyone else. She usually met the leaders of the countries she visited, she was required to host functions and entertain.

There wasn't a single reimbursement for personal spending in her statements. There were no lavish parties, she hardly ever used a minibar.

John Key, since he became prime minister, has the same record. His credit card statements are surprisingly simple, with no trace of anything outside travel and what were clearly official expenses.

So if they can do it, why can't others? The answer is that those who transgressed either didn't care, thought they were entitled to it and probably believed at the time their spending would never see the light of day.

These aren't hanging offences. No one deliberately misappropriated funds, they just didn't care about breaking rules administered by a unit they didn't much care about.

But there will be a price to pay, and on Tuesday Shane Jones and Chris Carter will almost certainly pay it.

Labour leader Phil Goff simply can't be seen to give them a slap on the wrist. Demotion is imminent for the seventh-ranked Carter and the 11th-ranked Jones.

Of those two, Jones has been humbled and has confessed. Few politicians have had a more humiliating day than he did last Thursday and, as he put it, he has swallowed multiple dead rats.

There is an element of misfortune here, because if he hadn't watched porno movies he would have been lumped in with others who were too free with the way they used minibars and bought personal items on their credit cards.

He alone has had moral judgment cast down upon him. Some, like Labour's deputy leader Annette King, have said that what people do in private is their business while others consider an elected representative -- and he is one, although he is a list MP - should be above that sort of behaviour.

It is hardly unusual. Jones was undone when reporters checked with the hotels he had stayed at and discovered adult movies were charged at a premium -- a price which exactly coincided with those on his bill. Presumably they cost more because they are the ones most often ordered.

Carter is far from humbled. He has made no apology for his clearly excessive spending while he was overseas and maintains it was justified.

So while Jones is likely to accept whatever punishment Goff metes out on Tuesday, Carter may not. His reaction will be interesting.

If all this had happened a couple of months before the 2011 general election, Labour would almost certainly have suffered because of it.

Depending on how Goff handles the situation, it probably won't carry through to that testing time. There will have been enough water under the bridge by then to have washed it away, although Jones personally will live with it for a long time.

Any aspirations he might have had to one day lead the Labour Party have been dashed. Should he ever be elevated to a position of importance, it will be recalled that he was shamed in the great ministerial spending scandal of 2010.

In the immediate future, it seems likely Key will order credit card expenses to be revealed on a quarterly basis.

The rules are very likely to be tightened up and Ministerial Services given more clout to administer them.

Auditor-General Lyn Provost is still working on that, an exercise she started when Phil Heatley got into trouble over the two bottles of wine which he wrongly signed off as a meal. That has paled into insignificance, although at the time he resigned and was reinstated after Provost's inquiry.

As the ministerial drama plays out, another issue is starting to surface. Ministerial Services is subject to the Official Information Act. Parliamentary Services, which administers the spending of MPs, is not. That is an entirely separate set of circumstances, and the Prime Minister doesn't control it. Parliament's speaker, Lockwood Smith, does. It must be on his mind as he watches what is happening.

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