Kiwi MPs weigh full expenses disclosure
By Claire Trevett in Kiwi MPs weigh full expenses disclosure - 12 Apr 2008 - NZ Herald: New Zealand National news
Act leader Rodney Hide says it must only be a matter of time before New Zealand MPs have to open their books to taxpayers in a similar way to their British counterparts.
Last week, UK residents discovered their taxes paid for Tony Blair's dishwasher and Gordon Brown's Sky subscription. The MPs' expenses were released, despite a three-year battle by the House of Commons, after the Information Commissioner ruled it was in the public interest.
However, different laws and a lack of political will make it unlikely our own MPs' expenses will be on display any time soon.
In the UK, the Freedom of Information Act covers the House of Commons and House of Lords. However, in New Zealand details of what MPs spend taxpayer money on remains tightly under lock and key because the Parliamentary Service - which administers individual MPs' accommodation, travel and office allowances - is exempt from the Official Information Act.
Ministerial Services are covered by the OIA, opening Crown ministers to scrutiny.
Speaker Margaret Wilson has twice called for the same to apply to other MPs. In two speeches last year, she said it was "anomalous" Parliament's administration was not subject to the OIA, and the credibility of Parliament was partly dependent on openness.
However, so far only Mr Hide and United Future leader Peter Dunne have added their voices to Ms Wilson's suggestion.
Mr Hide said the Parliamentary Service's use of public money should be subject to the same rules as any other government department.
Parliament was already more transparent - including the Register of Pecuniary Interests, which has been public since 2006. He expected the OIA to change, but it was "a slow evolution".
He also said, however, that the majority of MPs did not agree with the extra scrutiny.
"Politicians tend to favour one rule for themselves and one rule for everyone else. It's human nature to want accountability everywhere except your own backyard."
He said there were sufficient safeguards in the OIA to protect the privacy of both MPs and their constituents - one of the concerns often raised is that such a provision would result in the release of letters between MPs and constituents.
Mr Dunne has also previously made similar comments about providing greater scrutiny, but with the protection of privacy.
Even in the UK, getting the information released was a three-year battle for the journalists and freedom of information campaigner Heather Brooke.
Soon after the FOI came into force in 2005, they made requests for details of the expenses of MPs - including Mr Brown and Mr Blair.
A further request by the media for more detailed claims of 14 MPs is the subject of an appeal to the High Court.
The Information Commissioner's decision to release the first lot of expenses provoked an outcry from MPs - the Guardian quoted Labour's Ann Cryer as calling it a "media witch-hunt'. The newspaper also said MPs were wary their addresses would be divulged.
However, MP David Cameron supported publication of the information, saying it would help reduce public unease about how politicians spent their money.
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg also said any delay in releasing the information would increase public distrust.
OUR MPS' PERKS
* Up to $24,000 accommodation allowance for MPs who live outside Wellington.
* Rebates on private international travel - ranging from 25 per cent for second-term MPs to 90 per cent for fourth-termers.
* $400 to have security system installed in home, and $600 a year for monitoring.
* Domestic air flights for both MPs and their spouses/ partners, as well as related taxi and accommodation costs.
* Children over the age of 5 get four return trips to Wellington each year. No limit on free trips for those under 5.
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