Hard News by Russell Brown


Moving targets

If Pansy Wong resigns today, we, as taxpayers, will cover 75% of the cost of her business class travel anywhere in the world for the rest of her life. None of what the Prime Minister said yesterday with respect to the abolition of the international travel rebate for members of Parliament will change that.

Her entitlements, should she take such a course, are set out in Part 6 of Directions by the Speaker of the House of Representatives 2010, which covers “Benefits and privileges available to former members.” As an MP through four Parliaments, first elected before 1999, she would receive the rebate to which she was entitled as of the 2005-2008 Parliament, when MPs last reined in the travel privilege that was instituted in lieu of a pay increase in 1972.

What the Prime Minister does want in his bid to change the rules via press release is to abolish the travel rebate for sitting MPs. He says “it is clear that there is no public confidence in this system," which may indeed be the case.

But to say so on the basis of Wong’s actions does not make sense. She used her Parliamentary entitlement to help pay for the cost of her husband’s private business travel to China – a breach of both the spirit and the letter of the rules – and it now appears that his private business interests have been linked to the public purse in other ways. It’s like saying the public has no confidence in the law around burglary because some people broke into houses.

And David Farrar’s happy conclusion that it is “amazing how quickly things can change in a couple of years, once you have transparency,” doesn’t bear scrutiny either. Wong’s improper conduct did not come to light as part of a public process (we’d have known about before now if that were so), but as a consequence of the work of an Opposition member, Pete Hodgson.

So we should be wary of sweeping gestures as solutions. The practice of offering holiday travel in lieu of salary is fatally flawed and needs to end – but I don’t want to place MPs under house arrest either. As Phil Goff notes in Claire Trevett’s story in the Herald today, there are legitimate uses for the travel rebate beyond a strict definition of Parliamentary business, or what leaders' budgets are able to cover. I do want MPs to have contact with the world. In the context of the government’s overall budget, the bill for travel rebates for existing MPs is not particularly high: $432,989 for the 2009-2010 year. So we'd want to think carefully about what we'd save.

We might also want to think hard about what we do with former members. We invest a good deal in our MPs developing experience, knowledge and contacts. In a perfect world, that investment might still provide a return even after they leave the service of Parliament. Rather than simply selling their experience to the highest-bidding board of directors, they might be useful citizens.

Perhaps to cover their travel in certain circumstances might not be such a bad thing. Would a fund available to former members -- as opposed to an entitlement -- be worth investigating?

Yes, this is to take an optimistic view of our elected members. But I prefer that to considering them, by default, rogues and thieves, which seems in fundamental conflict with the reason we elect representatives in the first place.

I can’t see any way around a proper, thorough, enquiry into allowances and their purpose – and I do not believe the Speaker should be pressured into enacting sweeping change merely to satisfy a media strategy.

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