Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

High-flying MPs reluctant to hand over controls on perks

Improved transparency put forward as reason to keep allowances in-house.

Turei says she believed that was most unlikely to see MPs stranded in the boondocks without being allowed to fly to Wellington to attend Parliament. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Turei says she believed that was most unlikely to see MPs stranded in the boondocks without being allowed to fly to Wellington to attend Parliament. Photo / Sarah Ivey

In the end, it didn't take much. In 2010, the leaders of all parties decried the misuse of their travel perks and put on "out damned spot" performances worthy of Lady Macbeth in relation to the setting of these allowances.

They were still standing strong in March 2012 when the Members of Parliament (Remuneration and Services) Bill was debated in Parliament for the first time. That was to hand over the setting of accommodation and travel allowances to the independent Remuneration Authority.

But for all the stiff resolve and hair shirts of that time, all it took was one submission pointing out that the Remuneration Authority might actually limit those entitlements. Then, they found an excuse to crumble.

The submission came from the impartial institution of the Clerk of the House, Mary Harris, appearing to give party leaders some moral sanction for their decision to keep travel entitlements, other than those for family members, in-house.

Harris' submission said there was a risk if the authority imposed limits that it would hinder MPs' ability to do their jobs - a point later backed up in officials' advice from the Cabinet Office.

Green co-leader Metiria Turei was the only voice to point out it was second-guessing the Remuneration Authority based on the worst case scenario which would see MPs stranded in the boondocks without being allowed to fly to Wellington to attend Parliament.

Turei says she believed that was most unlikely. "I don't agree that the Remuneration Authority would restrict our ability to travel to such an extent that we couldn't do our job."

For a start, the Remuneration Authority had to ensure MPs were properly supported and funded for their work when making the decisions - and attending Parliament was surely the most basic aspect of that work.

The authority is also charged with setting the travel entitlements of local body elected representatives, on whom the only limit on domestic travel is that it be for "council-related business".

And it was the Law Commission which recommended the wholesale handover of MPs' entitlements - from the funding provided to parties, through to accommodation and flights.

That review was itself conducted by a former MP who was well aware of the needs and nature of the role - Sir Geoffrey Palmer. In Australia and Britain, salaries, travel and accommodation are now set by similar independent bodies after similar public controversy over expenses.

It was initially supported by Prime Minister John Key, Labour, Act and the Green Party as a way to remove the perception MPs were feathering their own nests.

Labour MP Trevor Mallard. Photo / Dani McDonald
Labour MP Trevor Mallard. Photo / Dani McDonald

However, after the change of heart over the travel issue by the select committee considering the bill, other MPs took Turei to task last week for introducing an amendment to try to restore the clauses giving the Remuneration Authority jurisdiction over MPs' travel.

Labour's Trevor Mallard admitted the chance of the Remuneration Authority restricting the entitlement to such a degree that MPs couldn't get to Parliament was "pretty remote stuff".

He said it was a fairly close call to make the decision over the travel for Labour. "It wasn't a show-stopper decision for us. It was pretty much 45-55 one way or the other."

However, MPs on the select committee had listened to the advice from the clerk and former Speaker Lockwood Smith.

"They talked about the possibility of MPs not being able to get to Parliament, and breaches of privilege possibilities - remote stuff. I think we also took into account the much greater transparency since [2010]. It's much clearer now the amount people are spending," Mallard said.

One reason for the MPs' loss of resolve in handing over travel is that it has been quite a while since there was a travel "scandal" so it is not attracting the same political heat as in 2010.

That has been helped by the new system of disclosing MPs' overall expenses each quarter which gives the public the chance to see which MPs are spending the most. It was that disclosure, which will be written into law once the Remuneration Bill passes, that the Clerk of the House used to reason that it was sufficient to put pressure on MPs not to abuse their travel entitlements.

The total cost of MPs' travel since the releases began in 2009 dropped by 12 per cent ($414,900) between 2009/10 and 2012/13 - the second year of a parliamentary term.

Another unstated reason for the MPs' reticence to hand over the setting of allowances is possibly the fear it would affect their ability to use free travel during an election campaign.

The figures for the three months including the 2011 campaign showed a spike of $1.24 million in MPs' travel expenses (about $10,000 per MP over the three-month period) - about 51 per cent higher than for the same period in 2010.

Sitting MPs' ability to travel about campaigning on the taxpayer dollar has been a gripe for parties which do not have representatives in Parliament. The use of other taxpayer-funded resources is forbidden for electioneering, and tying travel to parliamentary purposes could have made some nervous that it would put flights under the same rules.

What MPs travel for
Inland Revenue has calculated that about 5 per cent of an MP's domestic travel is for personal reasons - an amount taken off their base salary when the Remuneration Authority is considering it.

MPs with large electorates or based furthest from Parliament, such as Northland or the West Coast, naturally rack up the biggest travel costs because it often takes more than one flight to get to Parliament.

Northland-based Mana leader Hone Harawira, for instance, has racked up the largest travel costs among the Opposition and backbench MPs - even exceeding the Leader of the Opposition.

Among ministers, after the Prime Minister, Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples tops the table for domestic travel with more than double the average expenditure of ministers, most of it on Crown limos.

Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples tops the table for domestic travel.
Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples tops the table for domestic travel.

He has previously said there is an expectation on him within Maoridom to attend hui and other Maori events such as tangi, often in remote areas.

There is no way to tell what exact proportion of an individual MP's travel is for personal reasons.

MPs spoken to said they rarely used it for private travel - not least because the amount of travel involved in the job meant many were happy to stay still during their time off.

One practical deterrent to using travel for personal reasons is that MPs can claim accommodation costs only if the trip is work-related. Hence, for Labour's recent leadership contest, MPs had to pay their own accommodation. That saw spikes in the travel costs of the three contestants - David Cunliffe, Shane Jones, and Grant Robertson - but only a few other MPs travelled with them for the bulk of the campaign.

Phil Goff said MPs had to be responsible in using the allowance for personal reasons. However, safeguards were needed to ensure people did not overuse their privileges, such as spouse's travel, which is currently unlimited apart from personal business reasons.

"I'll be away from my spouse for a lot of time. I'm not complaining about that, it's the responsibilities of the job. But if once or twice a year she was to come to see me in Wellington, or we were to go somewhere, I don't think that's excessive. If I was doing it all the time, I think the taxpayer would have the right to be aggrieved," Goff said.

The Mother of All Perks
The select committee has left international travel entitlements within the hands of the Speaker as well. That was a surprise. In its original form - for personal travel by MPs and their partners - it was the Mother of All Perks.

It was the one that prompted the overhaul of the system to start with, after a string of MPs were sprung using it in the wake of the expenses releases. Those included Rodney Hide and Pansy Wong, who resigned after claims her husband had used it for personal business reasons.

Rather than scrap it entirely at the urging of the Prime Minister, former Speaker Lockwood Smith forbade its use for personal travel and spouse travel, but allowed it for parliamentary business, such as researching policy development, attending conferences and building up networks.

National Party MP and former Speaker Lockwood Smith. Photo / Mark Mitchell
National Party MP and former Speaker Lockwood Smith. Photo / Mark Mitchell

That was intended as an interim arrangement until the Remuneration Authority took over but it has now become the permanent regime.

As yet there is no real disclosure when that subsidy has been used to allow the public to assess whether it was for a genuine parliamentary reason.

That relies on the discretion of the Speaker, who declined an interview on the criteria he applied when deciding on an application and said he needed to consider the Herald's request for further information on the use of the perk by MPs.

If political reasons were behind the MPs' decision to keep the travel entitlements within their own control, it was also predominantly political reasons that prompted the short-lived move to vest them in the Remuneration Authority to begin with.

After a series of travel scandals, the Prime Minister wanted his hands washed of all blame for the situation - and the best way to achieve that was to push that responsibility away to an independent authority.

When asked for his reaction last week, Key said through a spokeswoman that he was "comfortable" with the decision to keep travel entitlements in-house and believed the release of expenses had done enough to make the system transparent.

Trevor Mallard was honest enough to describe the backdown for what it was. So when National's Chris Auchinvole lauded the bill as "a significant step in the Government's commitment to having ministers and MPs' entitlements determined in a transparent, independent, non-partisan manner", Mallard interjected with "more a tiptoe than a step".

Some MPs were willing to discuss their use of rebates when the Herald asked what kind of parliamentary purposes were considered appropriate for discounted international travel:

Trevor Mallard, Labour
Where: San Francisco for the America's Cup.
When: September.
Cost to taxpayer: 90 per cent of the cost of a return business-class airfare to San Francisco. No accommodation was paid for by the taxpayer. Any accommodation provided by third parties would be disclosed in the Register of Pecuniary Interests.

Mallard was Sports Minister in the former Labour Government which had provided funding for Team NZ and was Labour's sport spokesman at the time of the trip. He also remains Labour's America's Cup spokesman. "I indicated [in application to the Speaker] I would go to San Francisco to support the team, I would be involved in events to which New Zealand companies brought people with whom they were making contacts, and would follow up on contacts from there, as well as previous contacts I had."

Phil Goff, Labour
Where: Canberra, Australia. Goff travelled as Labour's foreign affairs and trade spokesman, to meet ministers in Australia's Government and "lobby them on behalf of New Zealanders who are permanently resident in Australia".
When: February this year.

Cost: 90 per cent of return economy-class ticket. Paid for accommodation himself. Meetings included then Foreign Minister Bob Carr, Trade Minister Craig Emerson, and the Minister of Immigration's office. "I stayed in a training hostel at $60 a night with a communal shower block. There was no junket at all about it, it was all straight work."

Metiria Turei, Green Party
Where: Australia for five days "to meet with child protection agencies about their child protection law".
When: August
Cost: Qualifies for a 75 per cent rebate. Asked if she tacked on a few days for personal reasons, she said she had spent some time with Australia's Green Party "but no holiday". Accommodation was paid for out of the Green Party's leaders' budget - a sum provided by Parliamentary Services for parties to run their parliamentary operations.

David Parker, Labour
Where: Britain and United States. Visited the OECD and head of the International Monetary Fund in connection with Labour's monetary policy development. Meetings included former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz, Harvard's Jeffrey Frankel and IMF chief economist Olivier Blanchard.
When: September 2012
Cost: Qualifies for a 75 per cent rebate. "That's the only time I've used it. There were lots of meetings [former National minister] Simon Upton put together for me, various monetarists and trade economists."

Tau Henare, National
Where: Rebate was approved for a trip to Israel for Inter-Parliamentary Union purposes.
When: Last November, but the trip fell through.
Cost: If the trip had gone ahead, Henare would have qualified for a 90 per cent rebate. He gets two trips a year publicly funded to attend IPU assemblies as part of separate official travel programmes, but this was the third he wanted to attend because previous efforts to travel to Israel had also fallen through. Henare is on the Middle East committee of the IPU so applied for the rebate. "I think it's good we're able to use it for work."

- NZ Herald

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