You can never go back


Last Saturday during a conversation with a former MP the topic of a return to parliament came up.

He said, “You can never go back, even if you try it’s never to the same place.”

Sir Roger Douglas’s valedictory speech in which he spoke of his achievements in the 1980s when he was Finance Minister in a Labour government and said nothing of the last three years as an Act MP, is proof of that.

The former MP added, “John Banks will discover that too.”

But if current polling of the Epsom electorate is a true indication of what will happen on election day, it is possible that he won’t get a chance.

The poll shows National candidate Paul Goldsmith is well ahead of Banks, even though he’s campaigning for the party vote not both.

That might change in the next few weeks but it is possible that Banks won’t win the electorate and with the loss of that seat Act’s hopes of staying in parliament will almost certainly go too.

Epsom voters, like those in Ohariu, have voted  tactically in the last few elections, giving the wee party candidate their electorate vote and their party votes to National.

Even though it’s the party vote that counts and they have a National list MP, it isn’t something party members enjoy.

The poll suggests that other voters in Epsom are getting sick of it too and will have to be given some very good reasons to continue splitting their votes.

Should the election defy the poll prediction and send not just Banks but Act party leader Don Brash back to parliament, Dr Brash will also find that he can’t go back.

Being leader of a wee party on the way down is very different from leading a major party ont he way up.

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.

No glory in being best of mediocre lot


Oh dear, Herald readers have voted Helen Clark the greatest living New Zealander which only proves we’re a very mediocre lot.

That is not just  because my political bias clouds my judgement of her, I wouldn’t have considered any of the top five finalists as great either. They were:

* Helen Clark – 3163 votes
* Willie Apiata – 2645 votes
* Sir Murray Halberg – 1467 votes
* Peter Jackson – 1340 votes
* Peter Snell – 1041 votes

Others to score well were All Black great Colin Meads, 1021 votes; Mad Butcher Peter Leitch, 514 votes; The Warehouse founder Stephen Tindall, 387 votes; and Louise Nicholas with 361 votes. Sir Roger Douglas, nominated by Don Brash attracted debate but not a lot of votes.

All have done something of note, some more than others in their fields, but great? No.

I agree with Clark who said that Sir Edmund Hillary would have won the title had he still been alive. That wasn’t because he was first to climb Everest but because of what he did subsequently, in particular in the way he used his achievement to help others.

I can think of no other New Zealander with the mana he had nor anyone who even approaches greatness.

The Herald has generated discussion, and traffic to its website, with the poll but the only thing it’s proved is that there is no-one worthy of the title greatest living New Zealander.

There are many good things about New Zealand and New Zealanders but none of us is great.

Peters’ fiasco shows MMP flaws


Public law specialist Andy Nicholls says the Peters’ debacle shows a review of MMP is needed.

Winston Peters’ value to both Labour and National has become abundantly clear. Both parties are pulling their punches over the donations allegations for fear of alienating him as an ally or future ally.

MMP creates hostage situations. Remember Alamein Kopu and her pull over Jenny Shipley?

In this most recent row Sir Robert Jones has unexpectedly been firing most of the bullets at Peters. He probably summed up the view of many when he said, “I belong to a different era. I don’t like it now under MMP.”

John Key has said National will, if elected, hold a referendum into MMP. Key’s referendum will first ask voters: are you satisfied with MMP? If the majority says no, then a second referendum will be held pitting MMP against some other unspecified alternative.

But is this what we need? MMP was itself born out of a referendum, and voter frustration at the unbridled power of first-past-the-post governments. First Sir Robert Muldoon, then Sir Roger Douglas proved if you could control the Cabinet you could control the country.

But one wage freeze and an unadvertised rapid economic transformation later, voters realised they wanted their leaders on a tighter leash. They wanted them to have to work harder, and more consensually, to get their own way. Which is what MMP delivers with its minority or coalition governments, its requirements to consult and its generally slower pace of change.

Referendums are very blunt instruments and support for MMP in the 1993 one came at least in part from people voting against politicians rather than for a change in the voting system.

Plus, of course, for anyone younger than 32, two-tick voting is voting. So why would we ditch it? Because MMP has flaws which undermine the legitimacy of our parliamentary system.

Nicolls gives examples such as the ability for MPs like Gordon Copeland to abandon their parties, switch allegience and still be an MP; or those like Rick Barker who lose a seat but still get back into parliament – and even cabinet – on a party list. Although this also allows MPs to enter parliament when standing in an unwinnable seat, as Katherine Rich has in Dunedin North.

If that is justified by the sanctity of the party list, then what about Mike Ward and Catherine Delahunty? Both Greens and both higher placed on the list than Russel Norman, yet both pushed inelegantly aside when Nandor Tanczos’s early retirement offered the co-leader the chance to get to Parliament in time for some pre-campaign publicity.

All these inconsistencies create unfairness, though not so much as the threshold rule itself.

Under MMP a party must win 5 per cent of the party vote or an electorate seat. A win in an electorate, where the party scores lower than 5 per cent, still gets a proportionate top-up. So Rodney Hide’s win in Epsom gave Act two MPs even though the party won only 1.5 per cent of the party vote.

By comparison, in 1996, the Christian Coalition won 4.33 per cent of the party vote, a hair’s breadth from the magic threshold. But it failed to win in any electorate – so bad luck, no MPs.

There are two issues. Firstly, is the 5 per cent threshold too high? The commission that recommended MMP preferred 4 per cent, but the two major parties argued for a higher threshold. Those fears have proved unfounded. In fact, as much as MMP has delivered a more diverse Parliament, only one new party (Act) has broken in since the switch to MMP. The others have all been created around a sitting member.

But is the electorate threshold too low? In Germany, a party must win three electorates before qualifying for list seats. Adopting a three-electorates or 5 per cent criterion at the 2005 election would have seen five parties able to get in list MPs.

United Future and Act would have been restricted to Peter Dunne and Rodney Hide. As Jim Anderton couldn’t bring in a list MP under current arrangements, the Progressives would have been unaffected. Since none of those three parties attracted more than 2.6 per cent of the party vote, is that an unfair result?

And then there is the Maori vote. Last election, the Maori Party won 2.12 per cent of the party vote and four electorates, hence it has four MPs. This coming election it may win more electorates even though polling indicates its party vote will be no higher.

Since the number of Maori seats grows in accordance with the number on the Maori roll, it is entirely possible that over time this disparity between the number of MPs elected and the party’s proportion of the party vote will grow. That will mean a larger and larger over-hang and the leading party will need to garner not 61 votes to govern, but 63, 64, 65. Is this what we want?

These are all valid issues in need of debate. But they do not fit the yes-no format of a referendum. Nor do they provide evidence that MMP itself is beyond repair.

What they point to is the need for a considered review of the electoral system. Learning the lessons of the Electoral Finance Act, this should be conducted in a non-partisan way with a clearly stated purpose of seeking greater fairness.

In the spirit of fairness, perhaps such a review should also look at the Prime Minister’s prerogative to set the election date. Or the length of the political term; four years might be more productive.

The problem is that these changes require MPs to vote against their own interest. History tells us MPs don’t do that. Which is why a simplistic question in a referendum is so appealing. It looks as if something substantive is being done, even if it isn’t.

But concerns about MMP’s peculiarities are genuine and a more considered review would be more constructive.

I agree a considered review if not instead of, at least before, a referendum would serve us better than the blunt instrument of for or against vote in isolation.

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