Life at the top

Southern readers of this newspaper will by now be familiar with the widely varying standards of hospitality and entertainment expenses permitted by their local body executives and, de facto, by their elected overseers.

No-one in business today, which is what local government largely is, begrudges reasonable expenses incurred in the day-to-day commercial activity: it is the unreasonable expenses which have properly aroused public disquiet - liberal spending on gifts, top-of-the line wine and meals, meetings on the council credit card held in coffee bars and the like.

In most private businesses, staff who prove to have an excessive sense of self-entitlement are soon reminded of the need for restraint, that where costs exceed income, penury is the usual outcome.

In utilities such as city and regional councils, such monies are, in effect, derived from the public, and the public do not have bottomless pockets, despite the impression given by some employees that such considerations have no meaning.

The sometimes extraordinary level of expense incurred by Cabinet ministers, as disclosed on these pages in recent months, has pointed to a desire for a lavish life-style without genuine accountability, and taxpayers will be most interested to see whether - as promised - there has been any real restraint when the statistics are studied again in a year's time.

Employees of the state sector have recently been similarly surveyed, and the results have unfortunately again demonstrated that those in high places have a high opinion of their privileged status.

They have now been told by the State Services Commissioner to reduce their spending on expenses, hospitality and entertainment.

The sums are not large, by most standards - $875,000 by chief executives across 36 departments between July 2008 and June 2010 - but where they are excessive is in the area of hospitality.

Broadcasting Minister Jonathan Coleman has asked for a breakdown of TVNZ chief executive Rick Ellis' $140,000-plus credit card bill - $32,000 of which was for "entertainment".

High end restaurants appear to be favoured, with $100 a head meals by no means the exception.

Similarly, the practice of praising staff or entertaining visitors in the form of sumptuous meals appears to have been not uncommon in some departments.

There have been some instances where chief executives have reimbursed the taxpayer and this has been accepted.

The rule for public servants is that they should not use a departmental credit card for personal benefit, and it appears none have - all expenses have been work-related.

 

 However, hospitality and entertainment put on departmental credit cards should only ever be moderate, according to the commission, and some expenditure, particularly on food and alcohol for staff, appeared to be excessive, in its opinion.

"I do not think that using departmental credit cards in expensive restaurants is an appropriate way to encourage good performance or a culture of prudence with public funds," said the State Services Commissioner, Iain Rennie.

The issue has not been around breaching policies but one of judgement: "This is where the public service as a whole needs to change its behaviour."

And so say all taxpayers, including ratepayers.

Mr Rennie's observations that a culture of prudence was required with public funds go to the heart of the matter.

As with the South's local government credit card spending, most of it has been legitimate, but where standards of integrity have been allowed to lapse, where self-interest and the sense of entitlement based on presumed status has muddied the picture, then it is time quite detailed codes of use are established and enforced.

There has to be transparency over the spending of public money and the efficient publication of the data so that those who provide the money can see that it is being legitimately spent.

Small amounts do matter, because they indicate an attitude deficient in probity, as does a lack of the most stringent oversight.

If anything has been learned from this exercise in discovery - noteworthy in that none of the information was volunteered, and had to be sought under the terms of the Official Information Act - then it is that the fear of publicity may induce an overdue change in attitudes.

 

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