COMMENT: There's been a renewed focus in recent weeks on how political parties, ministers, and MPs are spending our money, and whether our political representatives are misusing or over-using taxpayer resources. This began with a focus on MP travel and accommodation expenses, Simon Bridges' "limousine" costs leak, and then the Prime Minister's popular announcement of a pay freeze for MPs.
The focus on "politician spending" ramped up even further this week with debate over Jacinda Ardern's separate plane trip to attend the Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru, the release of ministerial expenses, and a new parliamentary report proposing such an increase in funding parliamentary parties that one political commentator claimed it "will make your blood boil." So, here's a breakdown of the three main "politician spending" stories of the week.
1) Jacinda Ardern's Nauru plane trip
It's hard to find many political commentators, or even opposition politicians making serious arguments against the Prime Minister's decision to fly separately to the Nauru meeting this week.
Rightwing political commentator, Matthew Hooton, came to Ardern's defence over the extra cost of her going later to the meeting: "Ardern is our democratically elected Prime Minister and we pay what it takes for her to fulfil her duties, based on her individual circumstances.
This is hardly new. If a Prime Minister lives in Dipton, Ashburton or Te Kuiti, like Bill English, Jenny Shipley and Jim Bolger, their travel costs more than if they live in Parnell or Mt Albert, like John Key, Helen Clark and Ms Ardern. If we are lucky enough to elect a Franklin Roosevelt as our Prime Minister, he will come with the cost of getting his wheelchair on and off the plane" – see his RNZ column, MPs' travel expenses are a necessary cost, not a scandal.
Hooton extended this defence to Opposition leader Simon Bridges' recent tour of New Zealand, saying the cost of both their travel is just "the cost of them doing their jobs". Furthermore, "Neither is skylarking. They are working harder than most of us could ever understand."
Plenty of others pointed out that neither Ardern or Bridges were getting any personal benefit out of the extra travel. Newsroom's Sam Sachdeva argued the politicians are merely doing their job, and that should be encouraged: "There was no suggestion Bridges had been taking his Crown car on personal joy rides, and we should be encouraging politicians to (within reason) leave the Beehive beltway to hear from ordinary New Zealanders" – see: Ardern 'outrage' ignores cost of political work. Likewise, "Ardern's trip to Nauru is not a Pacific holiday: she will leave New Zealand at 2am on Wednesday and return well after midnight the same day."
Sachdeva argues that, in general, the public and media shouldn't get overly focused on this type of politician spending: "Pearl clutching about politicians gallivanting around home and abroad on the taxpayer purse makes for easy headlines… we shouldn't fixate on dollars and cents at the expense of the work our MPs are elected to do."
The issue of Ardern's extra spending was an important gender equality issue, and Sachdeva makes the case for the PM's situation being perfectly defendable: "Her daughter Neve is too young to receive the vaccinations necessary for a trip to Nauru, and too young to be separated from Ardern for the full length of the forum. If there is some extra cost to balancing parenthood and politics, it is worth paying if we are to set an example for what should be possible in New Zealand society."
Similarly, Tracy Watkins thought the uproar was revealing: "Was it only weeks ago we were celebrating as a country the fact that Jacinda Ardern could be both mum and prime minister at the same time? Yet, at the first sign of a workaround, the critics are out in force" – see: No reason for Jacinda Ardern to stay home from Pacific Forum.
Interestingly, the Otago Daily Times took the opposite stance, also on the grounds of gender equality, arguing that Ardern's shortened trip made it look like a new mother wasn't capable of properly fulfilling the role: "Spending aside, the real cost of Ms Ardern's special flight was the lost opportunity to showcase the realistic practicalities of being a new mother and full-time worker at the same time – something she has often spoken about. When the opportunity came for action, what Ms Ardern chose to do must have left many other parents scratching their heads" – see the editorial, PM's Nauru trip a lost chance.
The newspaper lamented that the lesson people would take from the controversy was that a mother had to cut her trip short and have extraordinary help in order to carry out her duties: "for most New Zealand parents such issues are the realities of life with a new baby. Accessing a military aircraft at their leisure is not. The Prime Minister could have used this week's Nauru trip as a chance to show what a more gender-balanced New Zealand might look like. Instead, the message she sent New Zealand's stay-at-home dads was not an uplifting one: Yes, you can be a full-time parent, but not for any longer than one day at a time."
2) Ministerial spending
Travel and accommodation expense details were released yesterday – for the three-month period of April to June – and these were mostly good news for the Government, because the level of spending appeared to be down compared to the previous administration.
This was best covered by Stuff's Henry Cooke who noted: The Government's $1.49m spend compares to $2.02m spent in the same period of 2017, $2.25m spent in the same quarter in 2016, and $2.33m in the same period of 2015" – see: Ministers spent $1.49m on travel and accommodation in last quarter - less than last Government for same period.
Yet it also dished up more bad publicity for the beleaguered (and now former) Broadcasting Minister: "Clare Curran made a $1000 return trip from Brisbane airport to the Gold Coast in a chauffeur driven car. Curran made the trip to Australia in April in her ministerial capacity for 'a first hand look at what it takes to broadcast a multi-media mega sports event', according to a statement issued at the time".
The Herald pointed out in its report that "Former Economic Development minister Steven Joyce was roundly criticised when he racked up a $1248 taxi ride during a trip to Australia in 2015" – see: Ministers' expenses finally released today. Also potentially embarrassing for the Government, this article reported that "Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones spent $1925.36 for a night at the swanky Millbrook Resort with his wife and a staff member".
In terms of travel and accommodation spent around New Zealand, the top three ministerial spenders were (in order): Kelvin Davis, Phil Twyford, and Shane Jones – see Emma Hurley: Ministers' expenses released: Who were the biggest spenders?
One expenditure item had its details redacted by the Government on the basis of national security. Andrew Little had spent $178 on getting a book printed – see Sam Sachdeva's The curious case of the 'secret' state gift. Little explained to the media that the book – given to the UAE Foreign Minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan – was an unpublished manuscript written by Little's father, about his time in the UAE working for the former Emir of Abu Dhabi, who is the father of the UAE Foreign Minister.
3) Proposed increase in party funding
It's long been an open secret within Parliament that much of the taxpayer funded resources of MPs are surreptitiously used for electioneering by the parties. This is John Armstrong's basic point in his column, Simon Bridges' travel spending 'was state funding of a political party in drag'. He says that although all this money is meant for "parliamentary business" the politicians have "licence to do just about anything", essentially converting much of it into effective state subsidies for the political parties.
For example, in the case of the National leader, Armstrong says "the nationwide 'roadshow' which witnessed Bridges address some 70 public meetings was something else again. It was more accurately a 'get to know you' exercise in self-promotion. To be blunt, it was state funding of a political party in drag."
Armstrong says all the parties do this, and they largely get away with the misuse of taxpayer resources because "when it comes to sniping at each other, there is an unspoken pact between the parties in Parliament that this territory is out of bounds. There is a big danger of the pot calling the kettle black".
State funding of political parties was back on the agenda this week with the release of a parliamentary report by former MPs Annette King and Eric Roy, together with an ex-Treasury official. It proposed substantial increases in funding for MPs, and suggested that MPs should take responsibility for ensuring these hundreds of millions of dollars are used appropriately, and not just for electioneering, by putting the Speaker's Office in charge of the money.
Henry Cooke reported that the "overall funding for MP support and offices would increase by about a fifth, or $13m a year – the largest-ever increase" – see: Report suggests $13m in extra funding for MPs' offices, but Government quickly rejects it.
Cooke explains that the report also proposed all funding for political parties should be provided on the basis of a guaranteed minimum level: "That would mean the two major parties would never have their funding drop below what it would be if they each received 38 per cent of the party vote, the minor parties who received more than 5 per cent would get funding as if they received 8 per cent of the vote".
According to David Farrar, much of the proposed increase in MP office funding, would "go on advertising and campaigning", and "This proposal is a huge rort designed to massively increase funding for Government MPs" – see: Massive increase proposed for MPs expenses.
Farrar thinks that the governing parties would unfairly do very well out of the proposal: "Also outrageous is it proposes Ministers get extra staff. Ministers already get totally funded for their staffing needs through Ministerial Services. And the number of staff is already 13% higher than the last Government. This report proposes each Minister also get an additional staffer funded through The Parliamentary Service. So a huge boost of 30 more staff for the Government."
However, although the Labour Party is officially in favour of greater state funding of political parties, this latest proposal is "in effect, dead in the water" according to Leader of the House Chris Hipkins, who has said the report won't be adopted by the Government.
Finally, Matthew Hooton wrote about all of this yesterday in the Herald, going through a history of the Labour Party's attempts to utilise state funding for partisan gain, suggesting that although the report has been shelved, "taxpayers must remain vigilant" because "rust never sleeps" – see: Eyeing up taxpayers' pockets.