Editorial: Putting themselves about

The story's been told, and reported, that a new caucus of Labour MPs had their travel entitlements explained to them like this: "You could join the Invercargill library and fly down there every week to renew your books."

Granted, repetition doesn't itself mean a story is correct. In fact, any MP minded to take the advice literally would most likely have been sorely disappointed because you have to live south of the Waitaki to be member of our fine library.

But it is true that the domestic travel entitlements of our MPs are extensive. This is something that has surfaced over the "you're paying for it" political criticisms over the fact that the three contenders for the Labour leadership are using their travel perk as they travel around the country to campaign. They'll pay other expenses, including accommodation, out of their own pockets.

There's no question that what Labour's doing is within the rules. The directions issued by the Speaker of the House set out the definition for parliamentary business and specifically include caucus and party meetings in the bit about "any function that a party could reasonably be expected to carry out in its capacity as a party and that complements the business of the House of Representatives".

Not that this will necessarily soothe complaints.

When people hear "entitlements" in such contexts, they're inclined to associate it with rarefied privilege. When they hear that such things are within the rules, they determine that the rules are sucky - and let's not forget who drafted them.

However, the fact that these travel provisions exist is not only generally tolerable, it's important.

New Zealand needs its MPs to circulate as part of their duties, in the broadest sense, to connect with the public.

Does that include inner-party doings like elections?

Surely. To argue that it's not legitimate is to disregard the importance of having a fully functioning opposition. There's a case to be put that we've been lacking in this regard lately, and that we're not the better for it.

It's not quite the case that the sky is the limit. Some highly publicised abuses have arisen from time to time, to the extent that well-considered and seemingly well-received report from the Law Commission in 2010 on the perks system recommended that an independent Remuneration Authority should set travel and accommodation expenses for MPs.

But when a bill proposing this went through the select committee process it was flipped to return control to the Speaker. This on the grounds that travel was just so essential to the job that control shouldn't be entrusted to a body outside Parliament.

Fine. Be like that. But at very least there should be the improved scrutiny that would come from the flight details being available under the Official Information Act. And by this we mean something more revelatory that what we have at present - each MP's total travel spending revealed every three months, but no details about the trips nor reasons for them.

As for the Labour leadership roadshow, or airshow if you prefer, party members hereabouts might be excused for being miffed that the 11-centre tour comes no further south than Dunedin. Should we take that as some sort of indication about the party's numbers in Southland?

The Southland Times