A whiff of hypocrisy in expenses 'scandal'?

Pardon me for being something of a contrarian, and I know how we love to despise those who consider themselves so above the herd as to apply for public office, but am I mistaken in discerning a whiff of hypocrisy and cultural cringe about the great credit-card scandal of 2010?

Amid the outrage and the holier-than-thou indignation, I'm trying to figure out exactly what great crime, what heinous corruption has occurred; and out of which cesspool of self-enriching sludge those ministers of the Crown might have evolved to warrant such an orgy of contempt.

Is it that they are fair game to be held to higher account for their actions, both public and private, than the rest of us?

Is it the very fact that they carry in their wallets credit cards underwritten by your taxes and mine?

Or is it that other countries, notably the United Kingdom, have endured explosive MP spending rorts, and that the more hormonal members of the Fourth Estate elevated the volume of our own in an attempt to mask the fact that, when all is said and done, there really isn't one?

That is how the evidence would most probably stack up in a court of law; or even, devoid of the prejudicial language and contextual camouflage, in the court of common sense.

But, alas, we are not talking law here, or common sense: we are talking politics and one of the first rules of politics is that perception trumps reality, every time.

That is to say, it is not what a politician has actually done, but what he or she is perceived to have done, that counts.

In the court of public opinion, many ministers have been convicted of dishonesty, unsavoury personal habits, drinking too much, using taxpayer credit to personal advantage, and other unspecified but generally untoward insinuations, when the highest charge that has been made out against them appears to be one of administrative slackness.

They neglected a ruling, or the interpretation of a ruling - not a law - and, incidentally, one contested by several longer-serving ministers, that it is not permitted to put any form of personal spending on their Government credit cards, even if it is to be paid back almost immediately.

In fact, as far as it is possible to discern, most personal credit-card spending was paid back within a reasonable period of time.

There is very little, if any, evidence of intention to spend wrongly in the entire six years of the period covered, nor to use the cards for outlandish gain.

But if you had landed from Mars amid this furore, that is not the impression you would get.

You would gather that New Zealand politicians are a profligate herd of trough-snouters routinely consuming pornography, buying golf clubs, boozing up, dining out, and buying flowers for their lovers.

This has been achieved by pointed reporting, not always accompanied by the appropriate context - for example, "the money was refunded shortly afterwards" - by an attitude of guilty until proven innocent, and by collusion of the MPs themselves.

Thus a report on Clayton Cosgrove's claiming an $80 meal allowance while entertaining on ministerial business becomes "a soft spot for expensive fish and chips", rather than a cheap meal for himself and several government guests.

Anyone bought a reasonable feed of fish and chips for half-a-dozen adults lately? What did it cost? Somewhere between $50 and $100?In a similar vein, politicians such as Lianne Dalziel do not simply "pay for" a couple of bottles of wine: they "rack up", or "run up" - or otherwise unaccountably fall prey to a promiscuous desire to spend wildly - even when that spending is not only allowed but a necessary part of Government business.

So it is with international travel and a dip or two into the mini-bar.

Golf clubs, bicycles, adult movies?

Not a good look, and Shane Jones is canny enough to know that when we, the great unwashed, are baying for blood, it is best to give it to us; the sooner we will go away.

For all his long years as an MP, Chris Carter did not seem to have learned that lesson.

Just say "Sorry, guilty as charged," even if what you are really guilty of, more than anything else, is political naivete.

Whatever else you do, do not run, because the hounds will be at your heels salivating with schadenfreude - the pleasure to be had at the downfall of others, especially, as we witnessed with the unseemly media chase through Parliament, those in high places.

Simon Cunliffe is assistant editor at the Otago Daily Times.

 

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