Editorial: Extravagant perk has to be reviewed

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When MPs' individual expense claims were made public for the first time last week attention rightly centred on an item that was not unusual.

Sir Roger Douglas had given the taxpayer one of the highest travel bills - which included return flights to London for him and his wife to visit their grandson. Sir Roger said this was his entitlement not for being an MP but for being an ex-MP. He, like others with long service, had qualified for overseas travel on the taxpayer since his retirement in 1990.

It is a pity his should be the case that surely discredits this rort once and for all. Of all politicians of his generation Sir Roger Douglas has probably done most to earn the country's lasting appreciation. But for his clear-eyed, single-minded determination the economy would not have been jolted out of its torpid decline in 1984.

Market exposure might have happened without him but it would have been partial and hesitant and would not have given the country the sense of direction that he installed.

He was able to move rapidly and radically precisely because he was not interested in accumulating long-service benefits. He did what he believed needed to be done regardless of political risk. He was in Parliament for a purpose larger than a personal career, as he is again. He returned at the last election determined to put steel in the Key Government if he could.

Denied a Cabinet place, he contents himself with the freedom the Act Party accords its MPs to speak and vote on most issues individually.

One of his regular themes is the profligacy of government spending in recent years. Act was to return to the subject in parliamentary questions on the day MPs' expenses were revealed. Sir Roger has done his record no good with his acceptance of this extravagant perk but he has good company.

Any MP who survives for 15 years qualifies for a 90 per cent foreign travel subsidy from the taxpayer.

It was awarded, he points out, as an alternative to a salary adjustment some years ago. Nice choice.

Parliamentarians are well paid by comparison to the rates most of them could command in the private sector. And they earn their salaries, working more hours than most people in long weekdays in Wellington and on electorate work at weekends. Their internal air travel and accommodation bills, now revealed, generally reflect the costs of serving large electorates and national constituencies of interest and duty.

Perhaps MPs become so accustomed to free air travel in their daily work that they think nothing of continuing to pay next to nothing to fly in retirement. They should think again. Those who make politics their career from an early age - quite a number these days - can be still quite young when they have served 15 or 18 years. The taxpayer can be picking up the tab for their private jaunts for another 20 or 30 years.

A few notables have made itinerant international careers as consultants in some area of their ministerial experience. By how much has the taxpayer subsidised these ventures over the years?

Politics is an ultimately thankless public service. Every Government ends in rejection. Its leaders, no matter how much popularity they enjoyed for a while, face the inevitable fall from favour sometime for no better reason than the public wants a new face on television.

Little wonder, perhaps, that they accept the retirement perk of near-free travel for the rest of their life. But it is grossly generous.

Companies would not award it to their best executives. If Sir Roger Douglas' embarrassment prompts a review of the perk it would not be before time. In fact, it would be a credit to him now if he were to call for it.

- NZ Herald

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