MPs caught wallowing in the trough

Think back two weeks to the announcement by parliament’s speaker that travel costs of MPs would be released for us to get our first real insight into their expense claims.

Now ask yourself why was it that, well before the announcement, the major parliamentary parties had agreed on a non-aggression pact to not criticise each others expense claims.

This outbreak of peace in the parliamentary sandpit was unusual and the only viable explanation is that MPs were worried they would taken to task for their profligacy in robbing the public purse. They planned to stay quiet and hope the public and media would move quickly on.

The announcement itself when it came was routine because details of individual claims were withheld and only the quantum of each MP’s spending revealed. But what followed was not a pretty sight.

There was ex Finance Minister Roger Douglas spluttering outrageously at being questioned about his trip to London to see his son and grandchildren and having 90% of the cost paid by taxpayers. This MP has done more damage to New Zealand’s social and economic life than any other single politician in my lifetime. Before Douglas got to work on the economy in 1984 we ran Telethons to raise money for such things as cancer research. Now we raise money for children living in poverty from policies he enacted. We shouldn’t be surprised to find this recycled MP now with both feet in the trough.

Roger’s leader, former perk-buster Rodney Hide, was nowhere to be seen. He stopped the gravy train just long enough to jump on himself and he’ll wait just a bit longer for the dust to settle before lecturing us how government spending must be slashed further to help the wealthy survive the recession.

Ex-labour minister Chris Carter similarly choked with indignation trying to explain his love affair with international travel and its enormous cost to the rest of us. He was worried his expenses were presented “out of context” and the public “didn’t understand”. Like hell we didn’t.

It got worse when MPs accommodation expenses came into the spotlight. National ministers were revealed to be renting out their personally-owned Wellington properties and then claiming up to $1000 per week from taxpayers to live elsewhere in the capital. Finance Minister Bill English was at the centre of the spotlight. He has been claiming over $900 per week from the taxpayer to live in his Wellington home with his family.

“It’s not about the money” he said. “It’s about the support I get…which enables our family to be together under the pressure of politics”. Bollocks. It was all about the money. Bill English has stayed with his family in Wellington for over a decade. After his latest ministerial appointment he transferred ownership of the family home to his wife and this enabled him to claim up to $47,000 per year for his accommodation rather than the paltry $24,000 he claimed previously. If this is not a rort on the public purse then I can’t think what would be. It’s unnecessary to point out the obvious hypocrisy from a man who has preached restraint on everyone else while at the same time exploiting parliamentary rules to his personal pecuniary advantage. The fact that it was within the rules as PM John Key says doesn’t excuse anything.

Bill is apparently struggling to keep his family together on his salary of $276,700; accommodation allowance of $24,000; expense allowance of $14,800; all his bills for rates and services such as electricity and phones paid; generous allowances for out-of-town accommodation and numerous other perks which include gold-plated superannuation whereby he gets $2.50 from the taxpayer for every $1 he saves – up to 8% of his salary. This means up to another $55,000 each year from the taxpayer going into the English family coffers.

It may come as a surprise to Bill that most New Zealanders will have more sympathy for another family of eight on TV last week who were struggling to feed their children on the low wages the father earned.

I remember former Green Party leader the late Rod Donald telling me once that for all the flak he took from other MPs simply for being in the Green Party nothing matched the intensity of scorn he faced when he called for a reduction in MPs allowances.

John Key will announce the details of a review shortly but he says it will focus solely on the accommodation subsidies for ministers. As Green Party leader Metiria Turei says it should be a wider review to cover all aspects of their remuneration. For example a couple of decades back a backbench MP would receive the equivalent income to a senior school teacher. Now the teacher earns around $80,000 while an MP’s base salary is $131,000. It’s time to get things back in perspective and remind our MPs they are public servants and we expect better from then than whining that they are hard-working and their expenses are misunderstood by an ungrateful electorate.

In place of embarrassment they should be confident they can justify every last dollar as legitimately spent for the benefit of our democracy. We have a long way to go yet.