First, as with other MP expenses scandals, just because a politician’s acceptance of taxpayer resources is within the law, doesn’t mean that their actions are within the realm of public acceptability. So it’s still not clear that Bill English has acted ethically in this regard. But the best judge of this is the public, who can decide whether English’s arrangements to maximize his personal advantage – or at least his family’s advantage – to such a huge extent was warranted. And I think we’ve seen that there’s been considerable public sentiment against a politician that earns about $300,000+ obtaining an extra $900 of rent a week in addition to that very high salary.
The second main issue is that the Ministerial Services rules have been shown to be more than just a bit defective. The rules and guidances of Ministerial Services have been strongly criticized in the Auditor General’s report. These need to be fixed.
But what needs to be remembered is that it’s the politicians that write the Ministerial Services and Parliamentary Service rules, and whenever you leave the politicians to decide the rules about their own access to resources, they are strongly inclined to write those rules in a way that is rather opaque and general, thus providing themselves with the ability to maximize their own personal or political advantage. This is what political finance scholars refer to as the general rule of political finance regulation: that is, politicians design the rules in their own favour, which normally means making the rules as vague and open to different interpretation as possible.
It’s the role of the Speaker, Parliamentary Service, and Ministerial Services to basically ensure on the one hand that their colleagues and clients have all the financial resources that they desire for their personal, parliamentary, ministerial and party-political needs, and on the other hand to allay the fears of the public that anything untoward is going on. We are currently seeing this system of ‘corruption management’ unraveling.
So rather than criticize Bill English, it’s the system of rules that we really should be criticizing this morning. He was just the most obvious beneficiary of those opaque rules, and there are definitely many other politicians taking advantage of the opaque system. Any blame for the English housing scandal needs to be apportioned much wider than just the Minister of Finance or the National Government.
So what can be done? How can the rules be fixed up?
This is a question for Ministerial Services – and thus for the politicians that write Ministerial Services’ rules. And I hope that the media put a lot of pressure on the politicians to come up with much clearer and fairer rules.
I think what we’ve seen is the value of the media and others applying pressure to the politicians over their use of taxpayer funds. This has been enabled by having a bit more transparency over MP expenses and allowances. We never would have found out about Bill English’s generous housing allowances, or indeed the Greens’ double dipping, if there hadn’t been a strong demand and movement towards ‘opening up the books’.
But we’ve still got a long way to go in terms of opening those books. In my research on the budgets being used by the parties in Parliament, I’ve found that it’s almost impossible to find out how the politicians are using their millions of dollars of taxpayer funds. What we’ve seen made publicly available in terms of MP expenses is really only the tip of the iceberg.
If you look at the Annual Report of the Parliamentary Service, which has just come out, it shows a number of the budgets used by the parties in Parliament, for which the public cannot access any information. For example, in one parliamentary budget used by the parties – the so-called ‘Party and Member Support’ budget, the parties spent $14.9m during the 12 months to the end of June, of which National spent about $6m, the Greens about $1m and so on. On top of this, the parties spent another $1.7m on the budget of ‘Members Communication’. Much of these budgets are being spent on highly partisan activities – such as Labour’s recent fake polling - yet for all of these budgets we, the public, aren’t allowed any further information.
Thus, just as we now know that Bill English has been playing within the legal rules – but not necessarily doing the right thing – it’s still impossible for us to know whether the parties in Parliament are spending these millions of dollars on legitimate political activity.
It’s also interesting to hear news just out of the UK that the state is going to stop paying for MPs homes in London, the capital. If MPs want to have a second home in capital, they will have to rent – they cannot own the house, as Bill English has. This is a rule that should be considered for New Zealand: MPs can have a second home in Wellington paid for by Parliamentary Service or Ministerial Services, but not if its owned by the MP, or rented off some sort of trust that is in some significantly way connected to the politician.