The Mother of All Junkets? Or a valuable means of quietly conducting below-the-radar diplomacy to advance New Zealand's wider interests on the international stage?

When it comes to matters of high sensitivity, the annual Speaker's tour is right up there. That has been the case since Jonathan Hunt led a five-MP delegation to Latin America in 2001. What came to be known as the "tango tour" saw the then Labour Speaker point-blank refuse repeated requests to release a detailed itinerary for the three-week trip that cost taxpayers the thick end of $150,000.

So the Herald made it a policy to ring Hunt every evening while he was abroad to get a rundown of what the delegation had done that day.

Hunt's successors heeded the lesson, issuing just enough information in advance of their respective trips to avoid being similarly pestered during them.


The House being in recess for the next three weeks, this year's tour leaves today for a 14-day stint in Europe which will take in meetings with fellow parliamentarians and high-ranking officials in France, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Poland and Germany.

That there are representatives from the four biggest parties means no one inside Parliament is going to accuse the delegation of catching a ride on this particular version of the Gravy Train.

The response of both John Key and Andrew Little was to instead put distance between themselves and something which is really an out-and-out anachronism.

As the Taxpayers' Union noted, there is one particular element to these trips which inevitably sees them labelled as junkets - that is that MPs can take their wives and partners with them. That and the business-class return airfares.

It is against that backdrop that the current Speaker, David Carter, like his predecessors, has found himself on the back foot.

Carter seems to have recognised that there is a credibility problem and it falls on him to lift the game.

His reports of Speaker's tours consequently run to 30-plus pages. They reveal that if these trips are holidays, the constant round of meetings and appointments makes them very much a busman's holiday. Last year Carter also advanced the notion of "Speaker-led international diplomacy".

While there may be something to be gained from comparing notes with Speakers from elsewhere, such tours should also contribute to promoting this country's wider international interests.


Because of their status - Carter has argued - Speakers can open doors otherwise closed. If he is right, then surely he deserves a more modern, more appropriate vehicle as cover to carry that out - not the antiquated model he has inherited from a now distant age when politics and perks were not mutually exclusive.