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MPs expenses: some thoughts

By Steven | July 31, 2009

It’s good, but it’s not enough. Why can’t we have more details about the travel and accommodation? And how much are they each spending on mail-outs?

One thing I find striking: if New Zealand was prepared to invest half as much on funding to political parties’ campaigns once every three years as we currently spend on our MPs’ travel and accommodation every six months, we could essentially solve the problem of money in politics in NZ.

Back to the disclosure issue, I still think the sensible thing is to subject Parliament to the Official Information Act, as Britain has done. The OIA already contains protection for matters of privacy, confidentiality and contempt of Parliament. It may be that an extra withholding ground might be required, but the general rule should be the same as for the rest of government: we’re entitled to see it all unless there’s some good reason to withhold any particular bit. We should be expecting of our MPs the same sort of disclosure of their uses of public money that we expect from anyone else in the civil service.

Some of the MPs have rather tossed their toys. They’re sullen about fronting up and accounting for the amount of money they’re spending. I don’t think they should be. I like to think we’re happy to listen to reasonable answers. I think it’s a bit insulting when they won’t return reporters calls asking questions about them.

The media, it seems to me, have done a fairly good job of reporting the explanations for some of the higher figures. For example, of course Hone Harawira has a lot more territory to cover than most other MPs. On the other hand, the media coverage has gone for the easy hits: who’s spent the most? Those who have the biggest bills seem to have fairly reasonable explanations for them. The really interesting question is: who’s got the least justification for the amount they’re spending? Admittedly, this angle is made harder by the lack of detail in the figures supplied. But the figures give us a starting point to begin asking questions.

On that point, I can’t say I’m surprised that MPs themselves seem to have agreed not to bash each other over the head with accusations about expenses. They’re politicians. What I found annoying was the suggestion in some parts of the media that this was somehow evil. Note to media: it’s your job – not the politicians’ – to work out what these figures mean. What does it say that your immediate reaction is to turn to politicians to provide the critical evaluation of them? 

Hopefully these releases will provide some impetus for further openness in the future. After all, the sky hasn’t fallen. We’ve learnt something about what it costs to run a democracy. It’s probably raised some eyebrows. (It costs $79,000 to run a Ministerial car every six months?!)  It’s provided some reassurance that no-one’s grossly out of line. It’s made us wonder about whether all that money has been legitimately used for Parliamentary purposes. It may even act as a discipline for some of the less justifiable expenses. It’s made us think again about whether it’s really sensible to give our former MPs such generous free-travel packages.

Isn’t this good for democracy?

Topics: Official Information Act | 3 Comments »

3 Responses to “MPs expenses: some thoughts”

  1. Graeme Edgeler Says:
    July 31st, 2009 at 8:08 pm

    It’s made us think again about whether it’s really sensible to give our former MPs such generous free-travel packages.

    It’s more “gave” rather than “give”. We stopped doing this about 15 years ago. The Higher Salaries Commission (as it then was) gave all MPs a salary bump, and we stopped giving them their gold-plated superannuation and other post-three term perks.

    I suppose we could have back-dated the salary bump to buy out those who’d received the lower salary while MPs, but the numbers and use will be ever-dwindling.

  2. ross Says:
    August 5th, 2009 at 7:34 am

    Steven,

    I find it ironic, not to mention disappointing, that Ministers can claim such huge allowances – Phil Heatley for example is claimig about 57K per annum – when one Minister is releasing private details about beneficiaries’ incomes and suggesting that some beneficiaries are well off. Talk about hypocrisy.

  3. ross Says:
    August 5th, 2009 at 7:42 am

    I lied, it’s Wayne Mapp who is claiming 57k per year. Heatley claims 77k!

    http://tvnz.co.nz/politics-news/mp-s-housing-perks-cause-controversy-2887032

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