We have seen Russel Norman's taxi bill. Now all of his colleagues in parliament need to show us theirs – and tidy up the rules while they are at it
As far as revelations go, it's not very exciting. Nothing like Jonathan Hunt's $29,000 taxi bill. (Which was apparently enough to form lifelong friendships: I once met a taxi driver who said he had gotten on so well with the Speaker when he drove him in Wellington, that he later visited Ambassador Hunt in London.)
It was inevitable that the Herald on Sunday's call for MPs to voluntarily disclose their expenses would be answered by the likes of Norman and John Boscawen (who have an added incentive as they campaign in Mt Albert), and not those who push expense rules to their limits.
Should we muster outrage that the rest of parliament spend our money without publicly disclosing where each dollar goes?
Much of the behaviour that has gotten MPs into trouble in the United Kingdom – such as the infamous, career-ending moat-cleaning bill – isn't actually possible in New Zealand. This is not just because we do not dig ditches around our houses, but because Kiwi MPs have far fewer opportunities to profit from accommodation allowances.
As David Farrar outlines here, clever political parties like the Greens use the system in a way that maximises the taxpayer money that is paid for their permanent accommodation. There are also allowances for MPs who spend the odd night out-of-Wellington because of ‘parliamentary' business. (How different MPs define "parliamentary business" is something that we can only wonder about – and is something the Herald on Sunday might like to ask a few MPs.)
I have no doubt that MPs do not abuse the system like their British counterparts have; even with the perks, being a New Zealand MP is not a significantly overpaid occupation, and few would ever get into the bear-pit of parliament for the money.
It's one area, though, where secrecy does no good to the MPs or the public.
In Britain, a special parliamentary order was passed that made MPs' expenses exempt from that nation's Freedom of Information Act. In New Zealand, Parliamentary Services – responsible for MPs expenses, among other things – is exempt from the Official Information Act.
The argument for this seems weak. The state of affairs in Britain, where some MPs are reportedly suicidal, and the unsavoury, thuggish, nationalist British National Party could benefit in this month's European elections from a voter backlash against the major parties, shows what can happen when expenses are hidden from public scrutiny. It just encourages leaks and a much bigger backlash when details emerge.
There are other areas where New Zealand's political funding rules are lacking – and vulnerable to leaks and lurid headlines.
I worked for ACT back when some staff contracts were set up so that they were ostensibly working part-time as electorate agents out of Richard Prebble's Pipitea Street house. This arrangement meant that the money put aside for ACT to ‘service the electorate' was instead used to keep communications and research staff pumping out press releases from parliament. Critics argued that it was a misuse of funding. Prebble claimed that it was a sensible use of funding for a party that did not have any electorates.
Other political parties, sick of ACT's "perk-busting", leapt on the revelation. But the bigger issue that the minor kerfuffle raised was that the rules were – and remain – out-of-date.
The division between "parliamentary" and "party political" funds is not respected by anybody. Public money that is not technically (or legally) supposed to be used for "party political" purposes is routinely used that way by all of the political parties in parliament. (An excellent overview was provided here in 2007, by University of Otago politics lecturer Bryce Edwards. I don't believe much has changed since.)
The British push for public disclosure now seems to be going too far: as a result of trying to hide details of how public money is spent, MPs now see their private lives being exposed as a strange form of sport. An anti-abortion campaigner is using the expenses scandal as a justification to call on the government to release identifable details of some late-term abortions.
This toxic, anti-parliamentary environment could have been avoided if MPs had agreed to more disclosure years ago. All of New Zealand's politicians – and not just those campaigning in Mt Albert – should take note.