Minimal disclosure of detail
Parliament has 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 report gives the expenditure totals for the budgets of air travel, land travel, Wellington accommodation, and out-of-Wellington hotel accommodation for the first six months of this year. But the important detail of how the money was actually spent is being held back from the public.
In this regard, Parliament is following the very limited model of disclosure established by the Greens in June. Green MPs it seems were uncomfortable with the public knowing the details of their expenditure of public money. Co-leader Metiria Turei 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. This 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 in June [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.
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
In last weeks’ disclosure of parliamentary funding, only six months of expenses is disclosed (1 January to 31 June 2009). This is an incredibly short timeframe of information. No good reason has yet been put forward to justify this. To only include 26 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 authorities 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 Parliament is seeking to hide the fact that 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 hundreds of thousands – or perhaps millions – of taxpayers dollars were used by MPs 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.
Minimal disclosure of content
Perhaps most significantly, the parties 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. Not only do the parliamentary parties not provide any detail of the annual $15,000 MP expenses – due mainly to the fact that this is a full allowance given without the need for receipts or justification – 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 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 parties use. These budgets are in fact much larger than the ones that the parties have decided to disclosure information on. For example, the following details are the ‘Party & Members Support’ budgets for the 2008-09 financial year for the parties in Parliament. Of course we don’t know exactly what these millions of dollars are spent on, but in general its for hiring specialist staff, publishing, postage, and other political communications.
Party & Members Support (2008-2009)
National Party: $6,932,000
Labour Party: $5,427,000
New Zealand First: $927,000
Green Party: $864,000
Maori Party: $703,000
Act New Zealand: $378,000
United Future: $314,000
(Source: Government of New Zealand 2008, p.243-244; Note: these budgets were formulated prior to the 2008 election and have subsequently changed).
In addition, there is a number of other services that all the elected parties benefit from – such as $17m spent on executive secretaries, $11m spent on MP travel, $2m spent on telecommunications, and $13m spent on computing and other information services (Government of New Zealand 2008, pp.243-244).
Services to MPs (2008-2009)
Services in Parliament: Expenditure
Secretarial Support: $17,148,000
Members Communication $2,328,000
Members’ Travel: $11,000,000
Information Services: $13,267,000
Building & Operations Management: $26,284,000
Personnel & Accounting Services: $6,170,000
Policy Advice : $822,000
(Source: Government of New Zealand 2008, p.243-244).
Failure to disclose other information
Until the 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.
What about 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 supposedly to be resolved back in late 1990s when all the parties agreed that their MPs would not collect airpoints, but I imagine 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 organisation as a ‘gift’. It’s not clear how often this occurs, but the current secrecy obviously makes it much more likely.
Parliament’s recent release of MP expenses was clearly a pre-emptive strike. It was fashioned to both ward off criticism that parties were guilty of secrecy. So the MPs 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 parties have ‘kicked for touch’ on this and want the issue to go away.
‘Open the books’ should be the demand of all democrats. The parties 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 MPs have something to hide.
In choosing a very minimal option for disclosure and by refusing a proper disclosure practice or regime, MPs and the parliamentary parties do not appear to gauge the depth of public distaste. According to Laila Harre, such MPs ‘are underestimating the extent of the disclosure that the public will now demand on these issues’. The politicians 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 parties’ 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.