Travel perks

Speaker of the House Dr Lockwood Smith is attempting to cast a shroud of secrecy back over the private "perks" of members of Parliament.

In the current climate, or any other for that matter, this is unwise and can only raise levels of public suspicion and resentment against the country's MPs and political institutions, all the more so for having only recently made such information available.

It will be recalled that it was just such transparency that allowed the public to learn that "perkbuster-general" Rodney Hide had last year availed himself of $25,163 in international travel expenses, taking girlfriend Louise Crome on trips to Hawaii and a ministerial visit to Europe and North America.

When this prime piece of hypocrisy was exposed - and earned Mr Hide scorn and contempt from all quarters - he repaid about $22,000.

Likewise, his Act New Zealand colleague Sir Roger Douglas - who hitherto had projected Cromwellian austerity in his attitudes towards the public purse - was revealed to have in 2009 spent $44,411, partly for himself and his wife to travel to London to see their son and grandchildren.

There were of course others, but in his wisdom Dr Smith has decided that we should not now know about such things; that such expenditure should remain undisclosed and that only a total figure be released each quarter showing the amount of spending on the travel rebates.

Alongside that will be a value put on the perk by the Remuneration Authority - which sets MPs' base salaries having taken into account various "allowances".

Dr Smith argues that because a certain portion of each MP's salary has been set aside or "deducted" to allow for the international travel perk - which amounts to a 25% rebate after one term, 50% after two, 75% after three, and 90% after four - that it is essentially "a private matter"; and as long as the total amount drawn down in rebates is less than the total amount collected, the public should have no cause for concern.

He is wrong on at least two counts: the first is the matter of public confidence.

Prime Minister John Key once again displayed his unerring instinct for homing in on popular sentiment when asked to comment: "Once the genie is out of the bottle, it's out.

My view is withholding the information won't achieve anything," he said.

And he is right, as are Leader of the Opposition Phil Goff, Mr Hide and Green party co-leader Metiria Turei, all of whom oppose the ruling (Mr Goff disclosed Labour MPs' expense details yesterday).

The second count pertains to logic and the accompanying sense of entitlement on the part of certain public figures that so often seems to cloud it.

The Remuneration Authority, ultimately acting on behalf of the public, arrives at a seemingly arbitrary figure for international travel - at present it is $9646 - and "deducts" it, along with other benefits from the salary package to arrive at the MPs' base salary.

It is not paid by MPs, for example, from after-tax earned income and put into some consolidated account or credit union.

It is essentially a benefit or perk which the MPs are entitled to draw from for personal international travel for themselves and spouses to the extent outlined above.

It is mere sophistry to suggest otherwise.

If it were truly part of MPs' income, unused portions of it would scarcely be returned to the Government to use as it sees fit; and, as Mr Goff has pointed out, if it is paid for out of MPs' salaries, "then the reward can't be disproportionately enjoyed by some at the expense of others" as is evidently now the case.

If, as has also been suggested, it is a way of rewarding long parliamentary service then it is outdated and problematic.

Unease, not to say outrage, at this latest manoeuvre will not be in any way lessened by reports that MPs have been planning behind closed doors to change the rules pertaining to accommodation allowances.

Under the said proposals, MPs will be able to nominate as "home base" - or "primary place of residence" (PPR) - where they normally live when not doing parliamentary business in Wellington and the Speaker's approval, now required, will be done away with.

The import of this is that the PPR is central to various perks and benefits available to MPs, including a $24,000 a year accommodation allowance.

Contrary to widespread opinion, MPs do difficult work under often trying circumstances in making our system of government work.

For this they should be duly remunerated at an appropriate level.

But what this level is and precisely what other benefits accrue should be clearly articulated.

In the wake of the Speaker's travel ruling, Ms Turei has called for an independent review to promote transparency on MPs' expenses.

This latest revelation adds urgent weight to such a long overdue exercise.

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