Legal Beagle by Graeme Edgeler

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MPs to vote on raising international travel perk

I don't really need to post this, as Idiot Savant of No Right Turn has beaten me to itBut, because I've written about the former MP's travel perk before, I thought I'd do it anyway.

For a reason it is yet to explain, Parliament is about to consider increasing the international travel perk for people who were MPs before 1999 by around 80%. Under the Members of Parliament (Remuneration and Services) Act 2013, it is set at around $11,000 per year now (see calculation below). Simon Bridges wants to increase it to around $20,000 per year.

A few years ago, they were updating the law around MP's pay and entitlements, and I told a select committee they should abolish the international travel perk that MPs who were members prior to 1999 still get on retirement:

Travel Entitlements of Former Members

I submit that all provision of travel entitlements for former Members should be abolished.
 
The justification for the continuation of this provision is that MPs at one point gave up a salary increase, and received the travel entitlement instead. That three- or six-year period in the 1970s for which MPs were “underpaid” was remedied with above-inflation salary increases, shortly thereafter. This tradition continues apace, which the salary increases of both ordinary members and ministers still exceeding inflation.
 
The vast majority of former members of Parliament who now benefit from this entitlement never suffered the “loss” that justified it. It was never a condition of their terms of employment, and was not factored into salary determinations in the way that MP’s direct travel entitlements were.

It is now 14 years since the entitlement was abolished for newly retiring MPs. Those who have even the remotest claim to have suffered through its removal have now had a minimum of 14 years in which to enjoy it. This is long enough. Whatever loss they may have endured, they have now been more than compensated.

I accept that former Prime Ministers may be in a different category, but consider that their needs are met by the provision of the annuity.

We can be grateful for the service of members of Parliament, and for the sacrifice of their families, but members of Parliament are well remunerated, and have been for a very long time. There is no justification for continuing this perk, and it should be abolished.

I remain of that view. And at the very least, the level of the international travel perk should not be increased. Next week, perhaps as early as Tuesday, MPs are going to get to vote on whether to do just that. Only a few current MPs will benefit from it when they retire (you have to have been an MP before the 1999 election), but it also benefits already retired MPs.

The change is pretty simple. The current maximum allowed international airfare subsidy for retired MPs who qualify is 90% (some former MPs get less based on the number of terms they served) of the lowest cost business fare between New Zealand and London is, as at July 1 of that year: for both them, and their spouse. They don't have to fly that route, or fly business class, but that's how the maximum is calculated. A quick check of webjet, suggests the cheapest business class return fare from Auckland to London is a little over $6000 (flying Malaysia Airlines), so the maximum annual rebate is currently around $11000.

For many, perhaps even most, New Zealanders, that would be a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Qualifying retired MPs and their spouses get up to that level of international travel every year.

The Government's proposed law change is simple: in the calculation of the maximum rebate on International travel, it replaces lowest cost business-class return fare between Auckland and London with an Air New Zealand business-class return fare. For former MPs who qualify for the perk, this will increase the maximum rebate to around $20,000 a year.

And don't think this is about supporting our local airline. Former MPs can still fly whichever airline they want. Air New Zealand is simply used as a means to increase the maximum allowed rebate for international travel.

So the change is, I think, an unnecessary one. But what makes the proposed amendment particularly dodgy is that it is being done through a statutes amendment bill, after that bill has already been through a Select Committee.

Statutes amendment bills are supposed to be for non-controversial technical changes. They group together a lot of semi-important changes to a whole range of unrelated legislation (this bill amends over 30 laws - included the Forests Act 1949, the Heavy Engineering Research Levy Act 1978, and the Tokelau (Territorial Sea and Exclusive Economic Zone) Act 1977) and they tend not to get much press. People can have a say, but you have to wade through quite a bit to actually find out what's in there, and even I don't always have the time to do that. But, of course, you can't have a say if the change is added after the bill has been through Select Committee, and passed its second reading.

The amendment was introduced on Thursday. According to Gerry Brownlee's business statement, it may be voted on as early as Tuesday, and if previous experience of statutes amendment bills is anything to go by, it could pass its final reading on Thursday.

There is one out. And it's a good one. Any provision in a statutes amendment bill has to be agreed to by all MPs. It only takes one "no" vote in the House's committee stage to remove a provision from a statutes amendment bill.

If this law change passes, every single MP will be to blame. And if it doesn't, we'll have @PhilipLyth to thank, along with whichever MP decided to step up. Without his tweet, I'd have had no idea.

— Philip Lyth (@philiplyth)

March 13, 2015

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