British scandal lesson valid in our House too

POLITICAL WEEK - BY TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 08:30 25/05/2009

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OPINION: There is a lesson in the British expenses scandal for our own MPs. That they have decided to reject the lesson out of hand speaks volumes.

Following a long and established tradition, our MPs - from Prime Minister John Key and Speaker Lockwood Smith down - have taken the moral high ground and claimed that there is less scope to rort the system here than in Britain. They are probably right, but in the absence of any public scrutiny, we have only their word for that.

Being being a small country helps. If your local MP dug a moat out the back of their pad and paid the contractors with a cheque stamped Parliamentary Service, you can bet that news would leak out.

But surely Dr Smith can't believe the system is more transparent? We know more about what Britain's MPs spent taxpayer funds on than our own. By definition, that means their system beats ours hands-down when it comes to transparency.

The British expenses may have come to light only through a piece of chequebook journalism (it is rumoured the Daily Telegraph paid tens of thousands of pounds for the information), but the information was due to come out within months anyway, after a legal challenge.

The public fury over the scale of the rort in Britain is one thing. Anger that the rort was able to be perpetrated under the cover of secrecy for so long is what tipped the scales of public opinion so resoundingly against the British Parliament and its MPs.

Heads have rolled - including that of Britain's Speaker, Michael Martin - and some of the remaining MPs are said to be suicidal. As one observer noted recently in The Guardian, the mood is so ugly, people would be quite happy to see MPs hanging from lamp-posts. What seems likely is electoral reform - nothing less will suit the public's mood for a purge.

Luckily for our MPs, there are few media organisations able to wave around a $100,000-plus cheque for the dirt on their expenses. There is no real history of chequebook journalism here anyway, apart from a few women's mags.

But a legal challenge seems an unlikely prospect as well. MPs made sure of that when they exempted themselves and their expenses from the Official Information Act during its drafting 26 years ago. It might have been a tricky move, but it was also a clever one. Applying the "nuclear" principle to keeping things in-house - i.e. that a strike on one is likely to be swiftly met by a retaliatory strike on the other - there has been a cosy consensus on the exemption remaining across party lines ever since.

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But MPs shouldn't mistake that for public consensus. Witness the anger over former Labour MP Jonathan Hunt's $29,000 taxi bill. It ticked every box and was within the rules of the so-called "transparency" with which the system operates; if anything, that just reinforced the view that Parliament is a cosy club which makes its own rules.

More than a decade on, the taxi bill story refuses to die. That may be because it represents one of the few instances in recent memory where the traditional consensus fell apart; a newly elected ACT MP, Rodney Hide, had set himself on a perk-busting crusade and got information on how much MPs spent on taxis from written parliamentary questions. Mr Hunt outed himself as the owner of the biggest taxi bill only after rumours started flying around Parliament. He no doubt realised that it was only a matter of time before others, fearing being tarred with the same brush, did the job for him.

There was a small flurry of MPs confessing to $40,000 to $50,000 worth of airfares before the nuclear principle reasserted itself. Details of the travel bill run up by the ACT leader Richard Prebble's wife, Doreen, were leaked to a Sunday newspaper and the mea culpas ebbed away along with ACT's belief that it was bullet-proof.

Of course, taxi chits are hardly in the same cesspool as duck ponds, moats and chandeliers.

But the principle remains the same; hidden expenses look the more outrageous for the fact that they are hidden. If MPs published an annual list of the amount spent on airfares, taxis and other expenses in a year, the scandalous might even become mundane.

Then there is the $14,800 that MPs receive a year - a tidy $1.7 million in taxpayer funding when spread across Parliament - for entertainment, membership fees and other "out-of-pocket" expenses. Stories of abuse are unheard of, but MPs are not required to keep records of what the money is spent on - which seems quaintly out of touch with the rest of the business world.

Whenever scrutiny has been applied to the $24,000-a-year accommodation allowance, meanwhile - think Phillida Bunkle and Marian Hobbs - MPs have been found wanting.

They have trotted out various excuses over the years on the need for secrecy, the hairiest of them being a need to protect their privacy. They have never put up a convincing argument, however, as to why they should be treated differently from public service chief executives or staff, whose expenses are fair game. Protecting constituents is the other argument. But the Official Information Act gives ample cover on that score.

The clause allowing information to be withheld to protect a person's privacy is, in fact, so widely abused now that it has become a near catch-all for anything agencies don't particularly want to release. There is no reason to think MPs wouldn't be just as creative.

The alternative is to risk a backlash that could visit a plague on all their houses.

- The Dominion Post

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