Bill pays (another) hefty bill

Bill English is no doubt hoping Dipton-gate will disappear fast following his decision to pay back all his ministerial housing allowance. But will it?

It wasn’t that long ago that the Finance Minister was on the opposition benches taunting the Labour Party with the cry of ‘pay it back’ . Time after time, in media interviews, in speeches, in the House, English led the charge in demanding that Labour repay the money which the Auditor-General had ruled should not have been spent on publicity material used during the 2005 election.

It is fitting (and a little ironic) that English is now paying back his ministerial housing allowance. But will that suffice? What his opponents will be waiting to see is if he is prepared to pay back the Parliamentary – as distinct from the ministerial – housing allowance he has received as an out-of-town MP, should the Auditor-General’s investigation deem him to be Wellington-domiciled. Labour insiders estimate that the bill might be as high as $400,000 – a decade or so of housing allowance, plus interest.

The Herald’s John Armstrong argued at the weekend that English needn’t concern himself with any repayment. English’s problem is, however, compounded by the fact that not only did he demand repayment by Labour (and also New Zealand First and the Greens) over publicity material, now he has himself raised the threshold by having paid back some of the money granted to him – that which he got through the ministerial housing allowance.

Labour will be asking, if it was good enough to pay back a small overpayment, shouldn’t he repay the large one too? The latter, by virtue of its size alone, is more significant. It certainly places English in an invidious position and provides Labour with a hefty stick to continue thrashing the issue.

In the event of an adverse Auditor-General ruling, English might yet choose to settle the problem quickly by paying back the entire allowance. The question is whether he has the wherewithal to stump up with hundreds of thousands of dollars. While the John Keys and Steven Joyces in National’s caucus would have little problem if it were them, English – having spent all his working life in Wellington – is unlikely to have the cash sitting handily in his piggy bank. Labour had the big whip-around to raise the money to repay its debt. English might need to consider beseeching National’s donors – perhaps starting with the Prime Minister even – for assistance.

He knows he has already been hurt – when the cartoonists start mocking you with a degree of harshness, it’s a sign of trouble. But he saw the corrosive damage which the pledge card issue did to Labour, and he will be praying that it is too early in National’s terms for similar damage to be inflicted on him.

But he also knows that Jonathan Hunt became forever associated with taxi chits and not for any worthwhile contribution he might have made in his lengthy Parliamentary career. Phillida Bunkle is probably as much remembered for the manner of her ministerial demise as she is for her work on the Cartwright Inquiry.

How will this affair hurt National? Probably, not much. It might knock another couple of points off its poll ratings, but when you’re sitting in the mid-50s, you can afford to be generous with some support.

One does feel sympathy for English and his family, who it will hurt. His children, still young, will be feeling this particularly keenly. They read the newspapers, hear the chatter at school, and see television. The issue concerns their family home.

English is a victim of the messy morass that is the Parliamentary allowance system. Young MPs get drawn into the mess by their more experienced colleagues. They get instructions on what can be claimed, and how to ensure you can get it. After a while, what seems somewhat indulgent becomes a right. After receiving it for a decade or more, it might seem more like a birthright.

All MPs should be thinking ‘there but for the grace of God...’. They might be legitimately claiming the accommodation allowance, but what about the rest of the allowance system? They might take heed and work out that opening up their system to the Official Information Act might be the best defence to future indiscretions.

Under the public gaze, the system would never be so hazy. Rules would be clear. Any fuzziness would be quickly cleared up. Maybe English, having fallen foul of the rules, might seize the initiative, and press this upon his colleagues?