Minimal disclosure of detail from the Greens
The Greens have refused to disclose the actual detail of the parliamentary expenses categories that they provided last week, choosing only to give an aggregated level of spending per MP. The party gave the expenditure totals for the budgets of car travel, air travel, Wellington accommodation, and out-of-Wellington hotel accommodation for the first four months of this year. But the important detail of how the money was actually spent has held back from the public.
Co-leader Metiria Turei has defended the lack of disclosure detail by claiming, ‘In our view, it's the total cost that the public want to know about – how much it costs for MPs to do their work’. This is an incredibly presumptuous, arrogant and counterintuitive approach – surely voters want to be given the maximum information, and they can then decide whether to pay attention to the finer details. The Greens’ approach also runs contrary to the lessons from the UK, where the devil has proved to be in the detail, confirming the public’s suspicion that politicians who made arguments along the lines of Turei’s were actually trying to hide the gross misuse of public funds.
This is a point also picked up last week by ex-Cabinet minister and former Alliance leader Laila Harre. Speaking on Radio New Zealand National’s Nine to Noon politics programme on Monday [which can be downloaded or played here], Laila Harre was highly critical of the Greens’ attempt to keep the detail of their expenses secret:
Then there is the travel, accommodation, airfares, taxi costs. Now, on these latter ones, the Green’s Metiria Turei has said that she doesn’t think the public want to know what the money is used for, they just want to know how much money is spent. Well I think she is quite wrong about that! Tens of thousands of dollars in airfares are actually meaningless to the public - unless the public also know what the * purpose * of that travel is. And I think its really unthinkable that they can just go into declaring “this MP did this much; that MP did that much”. MPs will then feel the need to justify why they spent so much more than other MPs. If it is justifiable I think they’re going to have to open up a lot more a lot more information than they are proposing to do.
Furthermore, the Greens’ secretive approach can be contrasted to the Maori Party. Co-leader Tariana Turia has said that simply releasing aggregated totals, as the Greens have done, is not adequate because it doesn’t give the public any idea whether funds are being used in a fair or just way.
It should also be noted that the Greens have refused to answer further questions from journalists about the details of the disclosure they have released. There are many perfectly reasonable questions that relate to the figures the Greens have provided. For example the Herald has asked the Greens (as well as other MPs): ‘To what destinations other than Wellington and your primary place of residence did you travel, and when?’ So, why does the Green Party refuse to answer such a questions, when they have the information readily available to themselves? (At the very least, both the Green Party office manager and the Parliamentary Service hold this information).
What is at stake here is the idea that the public can’t judge the use of these millions of dollars if MPs give no account that they were used for the purpose that they were intended and that this public money has not been used extravagantly. The politicians’ own rules state that the parliamentary resources of free air travel, car rental, taxis, and out-of-Wellington accommodation are only to be used for parliamentary business, yet currently the politicians use them, carte blanche, for any purpose that they want, including electioneering – more of which later in this blog post.
Minimal disclosure of timeframe by the Greens
In last weeks’ disclosure of parliamentary funding by the Greens, only four months of expenses was disclosed by the Green Party (1 January to 31 April 2009). This is an incredibly short timeframe of information. No good reason has yet been put forward to justify this. The Greens have been in Parliament under their own name for a decade now, so to only include 16 weeks of information is rather inadequate.
At the very least it would be obvious to include the full previous financial year. After all, although the Greens chose 1 January 2009 as their starting point, the parliamentary budgets don’t actually operate on a 1 January to 31 December basis. The public could be excused for thinking that it’s because the party is seeking to hide the fact that Green MPs had an extraordinarily high use of parliamentary resources in the second half of last year due to it being an election period. From their point of view it would not be a good look for the public to see how many tens of thousands – or perhaps hundreds of thousands – of taxpayers dollars were used by the Greens in the months leading up to election day on rental cars, taxis, air travel, and accommodation in the electorates that the party was campaigning in.
So, when are we going to see details of past expenditure claims, as in the UK? Again this is one of the lessons to come out from over there – the public needs to see the parliamentary expenditure going back at least a few years – not just the selected few months of current year expenses.
And rather than agreeing to publish this information annually, what’s wrong with publishing it monthly? Surely the Greens don’t think that the public should have to wait for up to a year to see their use of public funds. Such a delay goes against the public’s right to be able to judge on this important issue as the money is spent. During election year, in particular, there’s a good argument that the use of public funds should be declared as it occurs – not when it’s months after the fact when it can’t be used by voters to help them make a decision, and to ensure that public funds are not misused as campaigning tools.
Minimal disclosure of content by the Greens
Perhaps most significantly, the Greens have opted to limit their parliamentary funding disclosure to only a very narrow range of parliamentary budgets, excluding the larger and more controversial budgets that they use. The first glaring omission from the Greens disclosure is the [‘general expenses’ budget] of individual MPs. This is the budget that is capped at $14,800 per MP, allowing an average spend of about $300 per week. According to Information from Section 2 of the ‘Parliamentary Salaries and Allowances Determination 2008’, MPs have considerable license to spend the budget on the following:
(a) the entertainment of visitors, staff, constituents, and officials; and
(b) memberships, sponsorships, and fees, and
(c) koha; and
(d) donations and raffle tickets; and
(e) gifts and prizes; and
(f) flowers (including wreaths); and
(g) passport photos; and
(h) clothing and grooming (Prime Minister only); and
(i) briefcases and luggage; and
Interestingly, MPs do not have to account for their expenses claims or even to provide supporting receipts for this particular budget. And none of these expenses have been disclosed by the Greens. Not only does the Green Party choose not to give details of what they claimed for, but also won’t even provide aggregated totals for this category. This is telling, as this budget is possibly the one that has the greatest potential for the type of fragrant and outrageous expenditure claims recently seen in the UK.
The Greens should be easily able to provide an itemised list of expenditure from this general expenses category, but will no doubt fight against this tooth and nail to avoid the embarrassment of the public finding out about the extravagant and peculiar spending habits that the Green MPs have with public money.
But not only do the Greens not provide any detail of MP expenses, but more significantly they have avoided provided any detail whatsoever of their other parliamentary budgets. In relation to this, Audrey Young has posed the following question in terms of the general movement by the Greens and other MPs to offer more transparency: ‘The only question is how far will transparency go. Will it just be for MPs' accommodation and travel? Or will it extend to what MPs spend at Parliament around election time?’ Young is entirely right to categorise this as the main question. But it is not just limited to ‘around election time’ that these relatively secret budgets are used – they’re used constantly throughout the electoral cycle. The parliamentary parties are now involved in what might be called ‘the permanent campaign’, and to carry this out they illegitimately use their parliamentary-based funding for party work.
As outlined in other blog posts, there are numerous parliamentary budgets that the Greens use. These budgets are in fact much larger than the ones that the Greens have decided to disclosure information on.
Failure to disclose other information
Until the Greens (and other parties) agree to ‘open the books’ on their use of parliamentary funding, there will be numerous other issues that we just do not know about and do not know the questions to ask about. For example, we should be told the extent of spousal use of free air travel – especially when, as in the case of Russel Norman and partner Katya Paquin, that spouse is a parliamentary staffer for the party.
What about Green MPs use of airpoints? This is a particularly lucrative way of skimming off a benefit from parliamentary resource spending. And because airpoints are effectively transferrable, they can be used very easily for other political activity. This was supposed to be resolved back in late 1990s, but I image there has possibly been some slippage since then – especially because the MPs have been remarkably silent on this issue.
And what about the salaries of the party political staff hired under Parliamentary Service contracts? Why is the public not allowed the same type of information that we find out about ministerial staff costs. When I worked for Parliamentary Service I remember another colleague was paid twice her expected salary (something like $80k instead $40k) for office work on the basis that the additional $40k would be funneled into the party organization as a ‘gift’. It’s not clear how often this occurs, but the current secrecy obviously makes it much more likely.
Russel Norman’s use of taxpayer resources in Mt Albert
The Greens’ release of information last week does nothing to answer the questions being asked about whether Russel Norman misused his parliamentary funding to campaign in the Mt Albert by-election. As pointed out in a previous blog post, all the political parties in Parliament appeared to be siphoning off taxpayer resources to Auckland. And therefore the following question needs to be asked: Did the Green candidate, and Wellington-based MP, Russel Norman really pay his own way to Auckland and find his own accommodation during his campaigning? Norman was the only non-Auckland MP running in the electorate, and most people would have had a problem with Norman’s carpetbagging being funded by taxpayers.
One reader of my blog post, named Bob, took the initiative and asked Norman directly by sending him the following email: ‘Hi Russel - I've just read the article by Bryce Edwards "MP expenses and corruption in Mt Albert?" dated 27 may. Can you please confirm who is paying your travel expenses to the Mt Albert electorate?’ Norman responded by saying, ‘I travel around NZ constantly as co-leader and Parliamentary services pays for my flights.’ This response, while vaguely obfuscating, effectively admits that his numerous flights to campaign in the by-election were indeed paid for by the taxpayer.
In his email reply Norman also used the same line of defence that the disgraced British MPs used in professing to be working within the rules while rorting the system: ‘I am carefully following the rules laid down by Parliamentary Services. When campaigning in Mt Albert I pay for my cabs (I have a car from a friend up there so don't use cabs much) and ccommodation (again staying with Green supporters).’ Bob forwarded Norman’s email onto me, with the comment: ‘Here is his rather less than satisfactory explanation.’ And of course we can’t be sure that Norman isn’t being economic with the truth about any of this – because he refuses to disclose any of the detail of MP expenses.
Of course the Greens’ recent disclosure also gives no real answers to the question of whether Norman has been corruptly using taxpayer funds to campaign in Mt Albert (mostly because the disclosure only covers the 16 weeks until the end of April, and it only provides aggregated totals of Norman’s use of public funds). Yet the disclosure does give some indication about Norman’s likely use of parliamentary resources in Mt Albert.
First, according to the Greens’ disclosure, Norman’s taxi and car use is incredibly high $4480 for the 16 weeks – averaging out at $250 per week. This is particularly extraordinary when you consider that much of the period covered by the report was during Summer when Parliament effectively closes down and MPs go on holiday). So could it be that Norman’s taxi use was actually more like $500-$1000 per week in the last month of the Greens’ disclosure period – the period when Norman was first campaigning for the Mt Albert job. But, of course we can’t know, as Norman won’t tell us his taxi usage for April.
Second, in terms of flights, in the first 16 weeks of the year, Norman spent $15,828. This is the third highest air travel of the nine Green MPs, and Norman cannot even use the excuse of needing to have to pay to get to work (Parliament) – as he lives in Wellington! The other Wellington-based MP, Sue Kedgley, had much lower air travel expenses of only $4593 for air travel (and $1172 for taxi and car use).
Norman has attempted to use the excuse that his co-leadership duties mean that he has higher air travel duties. But travel is not meant to be for leadership duties but for parliamentary business. And in any case, the other co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons, had a much lower expenditure of $10,868.
Third, in terms of out-of-Wellington hotel accommodation, Norman spent $1319 – the highest of all the Green MPs. Its hard to imagine that none of this 2009 expenditure was spent in Auckland hotels. Norman clearly needs to come clean on where he has spent all of his expenses.
A complicating factor in all of this is the fact that Norman has been taking along a Green parliamentary staffer on his trips – his partner Katya Paquin. As David Farrar has pointed out on Kiwiblog, ‘It is against the rules to hire your partner (or other family members) as your executive secretary or electorate agent, but it is okay to have them work for other MPs in the party, or in the Leader’s Office’. And there’s a problem with this:
There is potentially a small conflict over Paquin accompanying Norman. I have no problems with modest travel for spouses, but because Paquin is also a staffer it does raise some issues. You see normally if a staffer travels with an MP, the cost is charged to that party’s parliamentary budget, which is limited. […check] But if a spouse travels with an MP, that is a general cost to Parliament, and means the party’s parliamentary budget is not impacted.
Greens major user of taxpayer funds
The reality is that the Greens are scared of voters knowing how they spend public money on themselves. It is widely known within Parliament that the parliamentary budgets are illegitimately used corruptly. The Greens are possibly the worst in terms of this. Such backdoor state funding has become crucial for this minor party. It uses the funds in the most political way that it can get away with, and diverts the funds, where possible, for use in activities to organise the extra-parliamentary party.
The party clearly has access to a whole host of state-funded parliamentary resources that it can employ throughout both the parliamentary cycle and its election campaigns. The Greens have gained significant state resources from within Parliament. The Green Party has the third highest number of taxpayer-funded staff, with 9 executive secretaries, the equivalent of 6 electorate agents, and about 18 working in the parliamentary offices on media, policy, research and administration. (By comparison, the Green Party head office employs just 2 people).
In the 2008/09 financial year the party was budgeted to receive $864,000 in Party and Members’ funding. This would have increased for the 2009/10 financial year to something like $1.4m. As an example of where this money goes, the Green Party’s official blog site, Frogblog, is produced with funding from the Parliamentary Service. It’s written and managed by the parliamentary communication staff in the Greens’ office. The Greens’ parliamentary office also publishes email newsletters.
The Parliamentary Service has very lax rules for such purposes, but even these rules were found to be violated by the Greens when the Auditor-General surveyed the use of Parliamentary Service funds for the three months leading up to the 2005 general election. In this short period, in publications and advertising alone, the Greens had misused $80,900 of taxpayer funding.
The Greens’ recent release of their disclosure document was clearly a pre-emptive strike. It was fashioned to both ward off criticism that the Greens like other parties were guilty of secrecy and also to take advantage of that growing popular sentiment. So the Greens are attempting a fine balancing act. On the one hand they have realised which way the wind is blowing and have tried to put themselves on the ‘right’ side of the debate; on the other hand they have sought to fob off the interested public with little real information. Effectively the Greens have ‘kicked for touch’ on this and want the issue to go away. As one perceptive blog commenter, named ‘Roland’, said on a Stuff website blog, ‘The Greens are simply releasing this controlled information in an attempt to take the heat out of the issue. Not surprisingly we'll find their 'expenses' very boring and the story will die down’.
‘Open the books’ should be the demand of all democrats. The Greens seem to only want to peer into the books themselves and tell us what’s in them. Voters could only take the refusal to answer this and other questions as an indication that the Greens have something to hide. It suggests
In choosing a very minimal option for disclosure and by refusing a proper disclosure practice or regime, the Green MPs do not appear to gauge the depth of public distaste. According to Laila Harre, both John Key and the Greens ‘are underestimating the extent of the disclosure that the public will now demand on these issues’. The Greens seem to fail to recognize the severity of the situation. They fail to understand the widespread reform that is required and will be increasingly demanded by citizens.
The political tide is clearly moving towards a demand for transparency on the use of public money by politicians, and the Greens’ attempt to give only an inch on this matter ultimately won’t be enough for a public that no longer trust political parties and parliamentarians.