Bunkle row snares Hobbs, Prebble

By AUDREY YOUNG political reporter

The old war wounds of Wellington Central's election fight are re-opening as the probe into MPs' housing allowances widens.

Allowances paid to Labour minister Marian Hobbs and Act leader Richard Prebble will be re-checked by parliamentary officials, as well as those to Alliance minister Phillida Bunkle.

Ms Hobbs unseated Mr Prebble in Wellington Central, aided by the tactical withdrawal of Ms Bunkle.

The issue has tarnished a Government that preaches austerity. Murky suggestions of double-dipping linger as it heads to the summer break.

Ms Hobbs confirmed yesterday that she was in a similar position to Ms Bunkle.

Both continued to claim an accommodation allowance from the Parliamentary Service of up to $16,000 a year for out-of-town MPs after enrolling as residents in the Wellington Central electorate.

Ms Hobbs was reluctant to talk yesterday. Acting Labour leader Michael Cullen said he had referred the matter to the service.

Mr Prebble's situation is different, but as the war of words heated up yesterday, Alliance leader and acting Prime Minister Jim Anderton asked the service to review Mr Prebble's payments as well.

Mr Anderton said if Act wanted police brought in, Mr Prebble should be reported to them, too.

Mr Prebble suggested that Mr Anderton had made defamatory comments.

He said he did not receive the allowance when he was MP for Wellington Central. He had moved back to Auckland and now claimed the payment when he stayed in Wellington.

In June last year, Ms Bunkle switched her place of residence on the electoral roll from what she calls her family home in Waikanae to her one-bedroom cottage in Thorndon, Wellington.

Ms Hobbs was elected in 1996 as a Christchurch-based list MP and looked after the Kaikoura electorate, but had bought a flat in Wellington. By August 1998 she had enrolled in Wellington Central with a view to standing there.

For the purposes of the election they both declared Wellington to be their homes, but at the same time, in order to qualify for parliamentary allowances, they claimed their homes to be outside Wellington.

Mr Prebble was the constituency MP for Wellington Central from 1996 to 1999. While he was registered on the Wellington Central roll and lived in a house in Thorndon, he did not receive the allowance.

After he lost the election he sold the Thorndon house and moved back to Auckland.

He declared that to be his primary residence to the Parliamentary Service and now claims the allowance for a smaller property he owns in Wellington.

He is still on the Wellington Central roll but said that like most New Zealanders, he had not changed his enrolment.

That was something most people did closer to the election.

He was angry to discover that Ms Bunkle, "who vilified me as a carpet-bagger, was in fact double-dipping and it appears the Labour candidate ... was, too."

"I am now considering moving back to Wellington Central to run against both as the only honest candidate."

Wellington-based MP Annabel Young, who contested Wellington Central for National, said she had never claimed the accommodation allowance.

National's Roger Sowry said the two ministers should stand down while being investigated "on what may prove to be criminal offences."

The same standards that applied to former Maori Affairs Minister Dover Samuels should apply in this case.

"We now have two cabinet ministers with allegations swirling around them.

"The ministers have, under pressure from the Opposition and the media, admitted they accepted tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money which they may not have been entitled to."

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