Brownlee's SUV hire OK with PM

The prime minister has defended his ministers' spending, in particular $1500 put on a taxpayer-funded credit card to hire an SUV to ferry Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee around San Francisco.

Details released on the ministerial use of taxpayer-funded credit cards showed just after the America's Cup ended, Brownlee met insurance industry officials in the city. He hired an SUV and a driver for a day at a cost of $1543.

Another big spender, Trade Negotiations Minister Tim Groser, spent more than $18,200 on his credit card in just one month last year.

He also returned with $200 of unreceipted spending from another trip last year, the records show.

Prime Minister John Key put only $755.43 on the plastic for a trip to the UK, New York and France. In the UK he stayed at Balmoral Castle with the Queen, which was free.

Key said Brownlee's hiring of an SUV and driver for the day was "appropriate" and "relative".

"If you were using it because you were taking advantage of a situation and couldn't be bothered getting in a taxi that's one issue," Key said.

"But when you're dealing with going big distances in a place where it's not necessarily that practical lots of businesspeople do that."

Key also said while strict rules governed the use of hotel minibars, many people would see a certain amount of use as fair.

"There are lots of instances where you can't charge that or do that.

"On the other side, it's not impossible that people spend all day working and quite often actually into the night they have meetings, and they get back to their hotel and they end up having some room service and a beer out of the minibar.

"In the real world, most Kiwis would say that's OK."

Groser racked up the $18,200 bill between October 2 and November 1, which included bills for minibar use. The previous month he had spent just $74, but the overall data showed he was one of the top spenders.
His trade portfolio requires him to travel extensively.

The records show he spent US$7133.42 (NZ$8682.35) for him and his private secretary to stay a week at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington in July.

He also spent $152.03 at Aries Wine Depot in Warsaw in July, and sat down with his private secretary to a US$302 dinner at Ristorante La Perla in Washington.

His $200 in unreceipted expenditure came from that trip to the US, Poland and Russia.

Groser defended his spending, saying he was "absolutely" comfortable, and was confident it was "both within the rules and the spirit".

Alcohol and meal bills were largely incurred overseas in his work as trade minister and while entertaining overseas guests.

"Every time you sit down at a dinner with people in most of the international events I go to, this will be part of the deal. So no, just part of the job."

He had no concerns about missing receipts, he said.

"I'll look into any suggestions that we need to improve our administration of that but I'm not aware of any concerns from the people who are responsible for looking at this."

Along with the credit card statements for ministers, details on domestic and international travel for all MPs were also released.

They showed MPs spent more than $3.8m on travel and accommodation in the last quarter of 2013.

That took the costs of travel for the year to just over $11m, including domestic flights, accommodation in Wellington and Cabinet-approved international flights for ministers and MPs.

Expenses for the three months to December 31 showed ministers had spent a total of $1,992,624 on travel.

The most expensive MP was Mana Party leader Hone Harawira, who racked up $50,952 in travel charges in the quarter.

The MP for Te Tai Tokerau has one of the largest electorates in the country.

Maori Party ministers Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia were also among the top spenders, with bills of $56,243 and $58,688 respectively. Those figures included expenses across both their ministerial portfolios and as MPs in their Maori electorates.

Key spent $62,767 on travel within the country, and a further $144,501 on state-funded international travel.

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully spent just $32,023 on domestic travel but he had the highest international travel bill of any MP - $165,686.

Christchurch Central MP Nicky Wagner had the highest expense bill in the National Party for non-ministers. She spent $41,561 in the quarter.

The highest spender in the Labour Party was leader David Cunliffe with travel expenses totalling $38,428.

Fairfax Media