MPs expertly exploiting loopholes

BY COLIN ESPINER
Last updated 08:37 10/08/2009

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Politicians' perks: if there was ever a subject guaranteed to raise the blood pressure of the average Kiwi, this is it.

OPINION: The public perception is that MPs have their snouts in the trough and do as little work as possible. This isn't entirely true.

However, it would help the image of politicians if their perks and allowances were open toscrutiny.

There is a reason MPs have been reluctant to do so - they knew there would be hell to pay if the public found out.

We have the antics of our British counterparts to thank for the sunlight that has shone into the murky corners of Parliamentary Services and its lists of ancient entitlements.

The public outrage in Britain over claims for moats, expensive house renovations, soft-leather furnishings and even cable porn led to public pressure in this country for a similar lifting of the veil on MPs' expenses.

The claims of our elected representatives pale in comparison with the British, of course, but only, it seems, because there is not the opportunity for our MPs to rort the system quite so widely.

Certainly, every loophole seems to have been exploited, and as in Britain, the system is characterised by secrecy, confusion and a lack of transparency.

We may now know how much each MP has spent on travel and accommodation over the past six months. However, we still don't have the details.

We don't know how much each MP spent on spousal travel. We don't know how much was spent on international versus domestic travel (except for ministers). And, more importantly, we don't know the reason for each trip.

MPs have argued the public does not need that much detail, and to require it would be an invasion of their privacy.

They claim that party whips scrutinise their spending, and that this keeps a check on things. In essence, they asked the public to trust them.

However, as the revelations of the past week or so have shown, that was akin to a fox assuring the farmer that he was capable of looking after the henhouse.

For it's difficult to argue how claiming a housing allowance to live in Wellington while renting out your own accommodation in the capital to a fellow MP and pocketing the rent is anything other than snouts-in-the-trough behaviour.

Indeed, Defence Minister Wayne Mapp didn't even try.

Asked by reporters whether he should be handing the rental income from his capital apartment back to the taxpayer, he replied: "I think the public would expect it."

His colleague, Deputy Prime Minister Bill English, is on even shakier ground. He has lived in Wellington for more than 10 years yet still claims his home is in Dipton, Southland, so he can claim $24,000 a year in housing allowances.

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Actually, he tried claiming much more than that - nearly $50,000 - this year by designating his Karori home a ministerial residence and paying rent to a family trust.

After English was caught out, he wisely offered to pay the money back.

However, this does not explain why he has been claiming anything at all.

Yes, English is the MP for Clutha-Southland, and owns a family farm there. However, the crucial test as to whether it is his home comes in a question on a form issued by Parliamentary Services and leaked by the Labour Party last week.

It asks MPs claiming the housing allowance: "Is this residence the place that you would normally go to when you are not on parliamentary business?"

It is impossible to see how English could answer "yes" to that question. Of course, Labour is far from blameless. Its leader, Phil Goff, also rents out his Wellington apartment at a profit while claiming the housing allowance.

MP Chris Carter is one of Parliament's biggest spenders of our money, despite never having had portfolios that demand much travel.

And while most National MPs were at least prepared to defend their spending publicly, Labour MPs like Carter have run like a startled fawn from journalists all week.

However, the fact Labour has started chipping away at English is an important chink in the collective armour MPs have presented over their expenses.

Whether Labour smells English's blood over this or whether it simply senses a rising tide of public sentiment against the system is a moot point.

However, it appears change may finally be in the wind.

Prime Minister John Key has ordered an inquiry into ministerial housing allowances.

This was clever politics.

However, it appears this may not be going far enough. The sense of outrage is more widespread. All MPs' expenses need to be checked.

Key comes from a position of some strength on the issue.

He is new enough to Parliament still not to be hidebound by the system.

He paid off the mortgage on his two-bedroomed Wellington penthouse in 2007, which ended his ability to claim a housing allowance.

He does not rent it out at a profit to another MP.

Granted, Key is rich enough to be able to do this.

However, there doesn't seem to be much connection between MPs' needs and what they claim. After all, English is not exactly hard up either.

Instituting a new, fair, transparent system would make Key unpopular with some colleagues, but the public would love him for it.

And surely it can't be that hard.

Few would begrudge MPs who live outside Wellington a bed for the night when on duty in the capital.

However, there is a big difference between that and feathering their own apartments for pecuniary gain.

The simplest thing to do would be to give all MPs (except ministers) the price of a mid- range hotel room (about $160) for each night they spent in Wellington.

If they wished to buy or rent apartments, it would be at their own cost.

Ministers could live in homes either owned or rented by the Crown.

If any received rental income from apartments owned in Wellington, it would be used to offset the cost.

Ending all travel perks for former MPs and their partners (about 260 of them at last count) would provoke no tears whatsoever beyond those concerned.

They have had their share of the public's generosity.

Finally, complete transparency, including publication of the travel expenses of MPs' and their partners, and the nature of the journey, would almost certainly see a marked decrease in the amount being claimed from the taxpayer.

Politicians have long ranked at the bottom of public estimation (alongside journalists, incidentally) and there are reasons for this.

If ever there was an opportunity to raise the esteem in which MPs are held, a radical overhaul of the expenses system would be it.

- The Press

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