MPs who spend less than 14,800 can’t be doing much

UK-style expenses scandal possible the headline in the Sunday Star Times (not on-line) thundered.

The story which follows on MPs’ expense allowance quotes outgoing Remuneration Authority chairman David Oughton saying the  allowance paid to MPs is open to abuse.

The $14,800 was supposed to be for “out of packet expenses incurred in the pursuit of parliamentary business”. This might include entertaining visitors, staff and constituents; memberships, sponsorships and fees, gifts, donations, raffle tickets and flowers, passport photos, briefcases, luggage and meals.

“The money is there to be spent on those things and if they don’t spend it on that then it’s money in their pocket,” Oughton said.

The allowance is also to cover accommodation and meals when working away from home. An MP who doesn’t spend $14,800 on those sorts of things can’t be doing much and I would be very surprised if most, especially those with large electorates outside Wellington,  don’t spend a great deal more on them.

There have been suggestions that MPs should have to produce receipts for this expenditure. That would be a time consuming nuisance for the MPs and whoever had to deal with the paper work because most of the payments will be for quite small amounts.

MPs do a difficult job and the good ones more than earn their salaries. They incur additional expenses in the course of their duties and just as they would in any other job, they ought to be reimbursed for that.

It is not unusual in the private sector for people to receive bulk funded allowances for minor out of pocket job related expenditure. However, I can see no justification for paying non-work related expenses nor continuing any payments once MPs are out of parliament.

Sir Roger Douglas might be within the rules when he claimed 90% of the costs of a  flight to Britain with his wife but the rules need to change.

Subsidising private travel may have been part of the employment package for MPs but as Sir Roger Douglas well knows, “entitlements” which are given may also be taken away.

Then there are the rules which govern payments for Wellington houses for Ministers who live elsewhere. John Key is right to order a review of them.

Mr Key said problems with the rules weren’t new.

“Ministerial Services’ rules look arcane to me. They don’t necessarily drive the best outcomes for either the taxpayer or the minister,” he said.

“I think the rules drive perverse outcomes…I want to make sure the taxpayer gets as fair a deal as possible which genuinely reflects the increased demand (placed on ministers).”

Mr Key said his ministers often worked 18-hour days for six or seven days a week.

“Most New Zealanders, I believe, would support me in my desire to see the marriages of my cabinet ministers and the happiness of their families remain intact,” he said.

“I don’t expect them to take advantage of the goodwill of the taxpayers and I don’t believe they are, but I’m quite happy to have new rules out there that reflect that.”

Poneke may be disappointed that I’m not going to criticise Bill English over this when it was publicity over payments to him which prompted the review.

Few people understand the demands placed on MPs and the strains it places on their family lives. The bigger the electorate and the further it is from Wellington the more difficult it is to service and still have time for family.

Bill serves the biggest general electorate in the country and the furtherest from the capital. The large majorities he earns each election reflect the hard work he does for his constituents and their appreciation of that. 

Like several other current and past Ministers he and his family moved from their home in his electorate to Wellington so he could have more time with them. That his wife has a job and his children go to school there doesn’t change the fact that they made the move because he is an MP and still have their home in Dipton.

The comparison with other jobs which require people to move isn’t comparing apples with apples. Unlike most other positions,  MPs work in Wellington and in their electorates.

Having said that, when the public service is being asked to do line by line reviews of costs it is essential that the government leads by example and a review of housing rules is necessary.

Questions it should consider are whether Ministers need bigger/better houses than other MPs; if they do, what is an appropriate level of assistance for that recognising the private costs and benefits of owning a second house in Wellington because of their jobs.

It also needs to recognise the difficulties and demands of running the country and serving an electorate elsewhere and the impact that has on families. All of that must be balanced with the need for fiscal prudence which ought to govern all public spending.

P.S. – goNZo Freakpower has a very good post on this issue with the sensible suggestion that everything be frontended in salaries and expenses be bulk funded and capped.

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