Deborah Coddington: Junket envy has gallery tongues clacking

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New Zealand is in danger of suffocating beneath a self-generated blanket of smug, to paraphrase South Park. I can't work up a lather of outrage over four retiring MPs skiving off to Europe for two weeks on a Speaker's Tour junket.

Sure, it's not a good look, but when did politicians specialise in those? They always struggle to justify junkets, seen as perks financed by the public's hard-earned taxes, but there is merit in sending our parliamentary representatives abroad to bring back good ideas and to spread the good Kiwi spirit.

But lately, that spirit's in danger. The career of an MP must be seen to be grim - work hard, abandon your family, jettison your love life.

Ignore these rules and the press gallery - those shining examples of tireless sacrifice to their employers, dedication to kith and kin, and upholders of sexual morality - will pursue you with all the vigour of the best investigative journalists until you fall on your knees with guilt and remorse.

The argument against these particular MPs (save one) is it's their "last hurrah"; no time left for them to impart any useful knowledge before they depart at the next election. Maybe, but as the gallery is so fond of repeating, a week's a long time in politics.

These individuals will have six months - 24 long weeks - to tell us what they've learned, and how the country benefited from their trip.

Do we want a parliament stocked with parochial hicks, intent on foisting a singularly provincial flavour into our lives? I'd prefer fewer MPs of much greater quality, regardless of their overseas trips, accident-prone backgrounds, or piquant lifestyles. But no, the gallery has spoken.

It would be helpful if the press gallery members who've been pursing their lips and clacking their tongues over this "scandal" told the public about the perks they enjoy courtesy of the taxpayer.

For starters, their offices are "rent free". The public fork out for prime Wellington real estate from which reporters need only to stroll along a corridor and up some stairs to gather information for their daily reports. Arduous moments entail circling, pack-like, in the foyer to catch some hapless minister on his or her way to the debating chamber. Oh, the privation.

Then there's the restaurant, cafe and bar - all in the same building - also subsidised by taxpayers, where they can refuel after particularly harrowing encounters with MPs. Oh, the inconvenience.

Journalists take junkets too, mostly financed by private enterprise, but also paid for by taxpayers. The Asia New Zealand Foundation, for example, sends reporters overseas to write positive things about Asia. I'll wager right now reporters are gearing up to follow the Prime Minister to China. The accompanying media pay their own way, except for Radio New Zealand reporters (fully taxpayer-owned and funded) and TVNZ (taxpayer-owned and part-funded), yet TVNZ has led the charge against this latest MP "perk".

I've experienced being pursued by TVNZ's Guyon Espiner through an airport and it's a bizarre experience, not unlike a daily chore on our vineyard, whereby I shovel horse manure into the wheelbarrow to spread on the garden. My horse follows along and, looking me in the eye, raises his tail and deposits more excrement behind him. This seems an apt metaphor for the current state of television journalism.

TV3 is no better, with Duncan Garner suggesting we buy MPs a one-way ticket. Classy.

The gallery will probably cancel my membership for this outburst. They'll recall I went to Cambridge University for three months as an MP in 2003, which drew much flak from jealous souls mistaking me for someone who cared about their nasty opinions.

Qantas paid for everything except my salary, which was paid for by taxpayers, but they got value for money. I wasn't in New Zealand, taxpayers spent nothing on my expenses, accommodation, airfares and taxis, but because of the time difference I continued my MP duties. I published research (at my own expense) on the Swedish and Dutch system of choice in education (now British Conservative Party policy). I still send out complimentary copies to parents, teachers and yes, politicians from all political parties.

There's no reason the MPs can't do similar before the next election, unless Speaker Wilson gets clubbed into submission by the gallery's smugness and cancels the trip.

The gallery's offices are surely overdue for an upgrade - I suggest decor resembling a glass house.

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