Bevan Hurley is the Herald on Sunday chief reporter.

I'm a big spender, Turia says

Turia and Sharples ran up a bill of $4500 at the Radisson Royal Hotel in Moscow. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Turia and Sharples ran up a bill of $4500 at the Radisson Royal Hotel in Moscow. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Their constituents are struggling but Maori leaders are living the high life.

Maori Party leaders Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples have racked up the highest ministerial expenses after Prime Minister John Key - despite not being in Cabinet.

The two are the biggest domestic travel and accommodation spenders at a time of Government cutbacks and high unemployment.

They have also run up big credit card bills, staying in elegant hotels overseas.

Figures released under the Official Information Act show they spent a combined $329,172 on chauffeured limos and self-drive cars in the last financial year, up about 20 per cent from the previous year.

Several senior ministers have spent more on international travel, including Key, Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully and Trade Minister Tim Groser. But Turia and Sharples have leapt into the top tier of ministerial spending on domestic flights.

Sharples spent even more on domestic air travel than the Prime Minister in the latest release of ministerial and Parliamentary expenses: $17,239 in the April-June quarter.

Parliament only began disclosing MPs' travel expenses two years ago, after the Herald on Sunday campaigned for transparency.

Labour MP Chris Hipkins said: "Times are tough, people are really struggling and it looks as though they have lost touch with the people they are supposed to be representing".

"I think New Zealanders are rightly annoyed about that."

An analysis of credit card spending shows Turia ran up a $4500 bill for herself and an assistant during a five-night stay in Moscow, one of the world's most expensive cities.

She spent nearly $1000 on gifts of glass waka, plastic kete and pohutukawa coasters ahead of her two overseas trips to Russia and Australia.

Turia said her portfolios - ranging from associate health minister to disability issues - meant she travelled more than most ministers.

Maori expected to meet face to face, she said, and many of her travels took her to remote parts of the country.

"There are huge expectations on Maori members of Parliament and especially Maori ministers. I'm a hard worker: I take my job very seriously."

But after being questioned about her credit card expenses, Turia became hostile, saying she never used her ministerial credit card and it was her staff who spent money on it.

"You make me sick. All you are looking for is to get a story that shows ministers in a bad light. You have questioned me about the use of ministerial expenses. You were looking for a story and you've got one - I'm a big spender."

As well, Sharples blew the budget during a trip to Perth in May. He stayed at the $400-a-night Parmelia Hilton and hosted dinners for 26 leaders of the "main cultural groups" and the Perth branch of the Maori Woman's Welfare League - at a cost of nearly $2000.

They discussed setting up an orientation pack for Maori arriving in Perth.

The MP had to request an increase of $560 to the approved hospitality budget for the trip due to "menu changes".

The dinners worked out at less than $50 a head, Sharples said.

The Maori Affairs Minister said he was expected to maintain contact with groups across the country. "Many Maori communities are remote from main transport routes, and a visit to a tangi in Ruatoria, for example, is likely to entail an overnight stay as well as a long road trip."

The Maori Party campaigned on making the Government "more accountable and transparent" by unbundling the public money spent on tangata whenua.

But Hipkins, whose Rimutaka electorate overlaps with Turia's Te Tai Hauauru constituency, said many Maori in his electorate were struggling to pay rent.

"I look at many of the Maori voters in Upper Hutt - they are not wealthy people," he said.

- Herald on Sunday

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