Politicians and commentators have used the rather lame defence of the recently-revealed ministerial credit card rorting by saying that ‘others do it too’ – normally citing the corporate world, where it is argued that the use of company resources for personal expenditure is the norm. But this is problematic because, first, it’s not clear that this is actually the norm in the private sector, and second, the role and ethics of parliamentarians cannot be compared to employees in a regular job. While it might be perfectly reasonable for an worker to ‘game the system’ to maximize their personal financial remuneration, MPs are not workers. [Read more below]
Disappointingly, it’s been the political left that has been most inclined to fall into justifying MP extravagance and rorting via the excuse that ‘surely things are worse in the corporate sector’. Over at The Standard, Irishbill, for example, blogged to say that he didn’t think the credit card scandal was such a big deal because, ‘I’ve been around long enough to see much bigger rorts – both in politics and the private sector’. He added that ‘I didn’t think it was a big deal when Heatley did it either’. Also, over on the Red Alert blog, Richard Shaw commented on the credit card scandal by saying ‘if you apply standard corporate practice…none of this is out of the ordinary. I’d like to see some of the CEO of big companies release expense claims as a measuring stick’. Similarly, unionist Joe Hendren – who normally has a pretty good nose for these things – has said: ‘Bet there are a few corporate CEOs with far more dodgy expense claims than ministers. I wonder how many pairs of golf clubs/memberships have been bought by shareholders over the years?’
But the point is that such practices that involve ‘gaming the system’ might be OK in the private sector, it’s not so in political life. As I’ve argued before in the blog post, Politicians should be paid to be representatives not careerists, being a political representatives ‘is not just another job’, and so comparisons with the private sector – or even jobs in the public sector – should not be made. Of course any employee tries to maximize their remuneration, essentially ‘gaming the system’. To utilise any perks available to an employee is the nature of employment under capitalism. Some on the left even view such exploitation of perks as a mild and positive form of ‘class struggle’. Workers are trying to break or stretch the rules to get more out of their bosses. And why not? The left are in favour of workers getting more.
But Members of Parliament are not workers, and voters are not their bosses. Their positions are as representatives of the people. After all, MPs do not have employment contracts, the right to strike, etc. The parallels with other workers – professional, or not – do not, and should not, exist. Democracy is not a business.
Yet as I point out in another blog post, Credit card scandal – why they spend our money, parliamentarians are actually increasingly inclined to think of themselves as ‘career politicians’ who are in a professional job just like any other. And that this affects their orientation towards the remuneration possibilities offered by politics:
Quite simply, professional politicians are more inclined to be interested in the personal financial rewards and perquisites that come from what they regard as a ‘career’ rather than a ‘duty’. Hence, with a focus on the material comforts and rewards of their ‘job’, it’s hardly surprising that all possible sources of payment are exploited by these ‘professionals’
This important point that MPs are not merely employees was also made by Matt McCarten in a recent Herald column:
what these ministers didn't get is there are rightly different standards for them. They are in the privileged positions of being leaders, where their personal ethics and integrity are important no matter what their political stripes. Carelessly using a ministerial card for personal luxuries is thoughtless at best and corrupt at worst. There are two types of politicians - those that think it's a privilege to be a representative of the people and those who think it's a privilege for us to have them. You can guess which category the ministerial card abusers fall under.
Arguably, all these arguments also hold for the representatives of workers in the union movement. Traditionally at least, union officials are not career professionals with a career path (although Helen Kelly and Andrew Little might beg to differ). It’s a long-held leftist position that the unionists should see themselves as representatives rather than employees and that the union bureaucrats should be remunerated at a similar rate to their members. This is why in a progressive union like Unite!, everyone from Matt McCarten (pictured on the right) down to the bottom can only earn a maximum union wage of something like $40k. Like the priesthood, a Unite! position is supposed to be more a vocation and a privilege to represent workers than a chance to increase your own material comforts. And typically, you won’t see McCarten and his comrades attempting to maximize their own financial rewards at the expense of their fellow 9000 Unite members.
Now this isn’t just leftwing idealism. There are important democratic principles involved. In fact, in a similar sense, the rightwing political commentator Matthew Hooton recently argued on Radio New Zealand National’s Nine-to-Noon politics programme that its only right that MPs face a different test to those in normal jobs. He said that it’s the raison d’être of the political class to make the rules for the rest of us, and hence they need to adhere to higher standards than the rest of society:
The role of a public figure is to set the rules in our society. Now let’s think of, I don’t know, say Steven Joyce, who has made it illegal to talk on a cell phone in a car. I think increasingly people are starting to break that rule again. But if Steven Joyce himself serially talks on his cell phone in his car then he can’t really remain the Minister of Transport.
The other problematic aspect of arguing that MPs rorts are only comparable to what goes on in the private sector is the uncertainly as to whether that’s actually true. The media has done a fairly good job of approaching private sector representatives to ask if the politician behaviour uncovered by the ministerial credit card scandal would be acceptable in their industries and workplaces.
Alasdair Thompson of the Employers and Manufacturers Association said politicians ‘would be facing discipline were they company employees’. Briscoe Group managing director Rod Duke said ‘Credit card rorts were akin to stealing and offenders would be putting their careers at risk’. And Fletcher Building spokesman Phillip King said ‘The policy is very simple: Don't put personal expenses on the company credit card’.