Disclosing MPs' allowances

As has been widely recognised, Prime Minister John Key's instincts soon tell him when he is on the wrong side of public opinion.

There are occasional instances when he knows he must push through and hope voters catch up with policies. And there are regular examples of when he acts to defuse situations.

On MPs' salaries, he was smart when he came out early last week and announced plans to stop the 5.5% increase promulgated by the Remuneration Authority. Few people think MPs, especially backbenchers, are overpaid.

Pay, backdated to last July, was to increase by $4 an hour or $8200 a year to a basic backbencher salary of $156,000. Add superannuation and tax free allowances and they receive about $200,000.

No one can dispute an MP's lot is easy. And while it is important to attract talent, MPs should be entering Parliament for far more than the money. They also have the prospect of extra income, sometimes considerable, as Cabinet ministers, party leaders, and by chairing select committees.

MPs have an inglorious history of snouts in the trough and the public doesn't trust them at all, no matter the party.

There's the history of a late night superannuation change (1987 when a Bill to extend MPs' and senior civil servant superannuation rights passed through all three stage in seven minutes) and the rort of private subsidised overseas travel, which began in the 1970s and grew to 90% of costs before being eliminated.

What added to the insult of the latest increase was that 2% of the 5.5% was supposedly not an increase but to compensate for lost travel benefits. John Key, disingenuously, said so himself. What a rort that is, however, with MPs again the winners.

They might ''lose'' the travel benefit, but even better they then receive the equivalent in salary. Employment law might maintain the perk, however shocking, is a ''condition of employment'', and therefore cannot be taken away without recompense. But that will not wash, and nor should it, with the public.

As it is, Mr Key is changing the law anyway and overriding the Remuneration Authority in his proposal to tie MPs' increases to average public sector rises.

There could be fish hooks in this and, sensibly, Mr Key is calling for careful consideration of the details. Ironically, MPs' pecuniary interests would align with higher public sector increases; this when the Government is, as is usually the case, endeavouring to limit pay rises.

The Greens deserve credit for consistently arguing for changes to the way MPs' pay is calculated and Labour, the day after Mr Key's announcement, thought it politically clever to go a step further and call for the ''stratospheric'' salaries of public service chief executives also to be reined in.

That will have resonated positively, and a good argument can even be made that senior public salaries have risen even beyond those of the corporate world despite what the Remuneration Authority might claim.

The rules and details for the sweep of MP allowances are complex, which does not encourage transparency or MP honesty. The best method to achieve this is through the threat of public exposure.

Yet MPs themselves have repeatedly knocked back calls to end Parliamentary Services' exclusion from the Official Information Act.

As recently as 2013, former prime minister and Law Commission president Geoffrey Palmer called the Government's decision not to extend the Official Information Act to Parliament as ''entirely specious'', driven more by MPs' self interest than enhancing transparency to the public.

In Britain, in the wake of startling allowance scandals, the setting of allowances was passed to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. Details of spending are published regularly.

It is likely, given the British experience and the decisions of the Remuneration Authority in New Zealand, the better way for accountability is through MPs setting pay and allowances themselves. But this will only work when all information is available for public scrutiny.

When MPs decided total internal travel expenses for each MP would be published every three months, the amounts claimed dropped. This move, though, only went part of the way because no further details are outlined.

Much of the travel could still well be for private business and family holidays. Who would know?

Disclosure not only protects the public, it also protects MPs if they have nothing to hide.

The inclusion of Parliamentary Service under the Official Information Act is long overdue.

 

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