Deborah Coddington: Surprise - the pen is pricier than the horde

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The public loves headlines about MPs with their snouts in the trough. In Britain, members have dropped like flies following revelations of excessive allowance claims.

Here the Green and Act parties sensed an opportunity and opened their expenses to the public, but it's hardly fair to criticise an MP who lives in the Far North for spending more on travel than someone who lives in, say, Karori. They both must work in Wellington, in case no one's noticed.

Last weekend Chris Cherry, a heretofore unknown academic, took an ignorant swipe at Kiwi politicians, telling us to not trust them with our money, just because he was steeped in cynicism.

Cherry failed to mention the British scandal broke not because of investigative journalism, but because of dubious chequebook journalism, as Newsweek contributing editor Stryker McGuire blogged.

The Daily Telegraph paid a mole in Whitehall some £100,000 ($255,136) to leak stolen data which was due to be released later.

Exposing New Zealand MPs' expenses to the Official Information Act would hardly matter, because it's virtually impossible to claim for non-work-related expenses, or at least it was when I was an Act MP.

Under leaders Richard Prebble, then Rodney Hide, our secretaries were barred from filing the forms - only MPs could do that - which were scrutinised by the whip, then the leader, then by the Parliamentary Service. Anything with a sniff of dodginess came back for clarification.

But now some press gallery members are in a lather over continuing taxpayer subsidising of meals while the public is suffering through a financial recession.

It's interesting reporters attach the adjectives "fine" and "luxury" to Bellamy's dining, but they wouldn't dream of doing the same for the Valentines restaurant chain, even though the meals cost roughly the same.

These journalists omit to tell us they also eat the subsidised food.

Truth be told, most MPs probably wouldn't care if Bellamy's, Copperfield's or the little hole-in-the-wall cafes were shut down.

These days plenty of eateries in the surrounding streets open until late, unlike the dark days of the 1960s. But some 1000 support staff work in Parliament's buildings, many of whom must stay late when MPs sit until 10pm. What would they do with no handy fuel stops?

I recall a story told by Richard Prebble when he was acting minister of finance and advised to earthquake-strengthen Parliament's buildings but baulked at the price.

Considering the cost-effectiveness if all MPs were annihilated, he concluded it was cheaper to run a general election. "You could always find another 100 MPs," he reckoned.

Then the state sector unions reminded him of the secretaries, tea ladies, security guards, chefs, Hansard recorders, messengers - the politicians' support staff who worked in the buildings, and Prebble realised it was these people who needed protection from being squashed, not the politicians, and changed his mind.

I suspect the public sector unions might similarly object if their members' meal breaks were suddenly curtailed.

Anyway, what's the big deal over $600,000? Many large companies have in-house canteens with subsidised food these days, either for health and safety reasons or just for good corporate/employee relations.

There's a smell of hypocrisy in all of this. The largest taxpayer subsidy in Parliament is the press gallery. It measures roughly 200sq m which, in today's figures, would be worth around $90,000 plus GST a year in rent.

Most reporters work for private organisations; some run their own little newspapers on the side, yet none pay rent. Taxpayers pay it all.

So maybe press gallery expenses should be subject to the Official Information Act? Was that a pig I saw fly past?

No, it was the Prime Minister off to Tonga, Samoa, Niue and the Cook Islands, accompanied by some of the press gallery, who each paid about $100 for tickets, plus accommodation.

Why so cheap? The rest was paid by you and me, suckers, and it came out of the defence budget. Don't hold your breath waiting for that headline.

- Herald on Sunday

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