Saturday, August 2, 2014

"That most delicious of political pleasures - spending other peoples' money"

Something that I feel has really dominated the previous half-decade of this National-led debacle-masquerading-as-a-government is the ongoing issue of MPs behaving badly with taxpayer money.

This time, however, I'm not simply talking about things like the government's breathtaking decision to spend $80 million to restyle the literal money of the taxpayer rather than finding a mere $30,000 to fund Christchurch Rape Crisis (although that's pretty bad).

No, on this occasion, the perfidy of our elected representatives is far more open, overt and direct.

I'm talking, of course, about MPs and Ministers' expenses, credit and charge-cards.

Now the first thing that *absolutely must be* acknowledged here is that there are some furiously and ferociously hard working MPs in the House who genuinely believe in and are absolutely committed to ensuring that the taxpayer gets excellent value for money from their service. I can't speak for other parties or MPs, but for my money I have personally witnessed Tracey Martin of NZ First putting in superhuman hours away from family, home, and company other than towering mounds of paperwork week in and week out for much of the last three years. The reason why I specifically cite the existence of MPs who do in fact work incredibly hard for their salaries and travel-perks is because it's very easy as soon as the topic of some MPs behaving badly with taxpayer funds for discussion to degenerate into shouted allegations of "TROUGHERS!" or "PUT THEM ALL ON THE DOLE/MINIMUM WAGE!" and "A career sitting on one's backside indoors with no heavy lifting and continual state banquets. Where do I sign up?" ... but that's only a really, really small part of the story; and hopefully these sentiments only accurately apply to a minuscule proportion of MPs outside of the Nat and ACT caucuses.

Having said all that, there is definitely another kind of MP. The popular consciousness tends to assume you find them down in the dregs amidst the bottom of a party's list - making up the numbers, and not even really supposed to be in Parliament barring some unfortunate and unforseable calamity that single-handedly wipes out a half-dozen sitting MPs or something. A National Party Cabinet Club fundraiser on a Malaysian Airlines flight, for instance. Particularly given Claudette Hauiti's recent keel-hauling (Key'll-hauling?) for a litany of such offences including a grand on petrol, hiring her spouse to work Out Of Parliament Support for her, a trip to Australia, and a whopping $30,824 worth of domestic travel, I can certainly see why this might be the case. Fellow Nat low-down seat-warmer Paul Foster-Bell's rather astonishing $35,000 of domestic travel (including a doubling of his travel expenditure from $7459 to $14224 which just so happened to coincide with when he'd presumably be using a helluvalot more domestic travel than usual to try and contest the Whangarei selection) is also arguably in this category.

But from where I'm sitting, we've got bigger problems.

There exists a class of MP charged with maintaining even higher standards of conduct and behavior than those we customarily expect of our mere elected representatives. They're given a Warrant by the Crown, they head departments as the local equivalent of Demon Lords of the Layers of the Abyss; they're called Ministers ... and they pretty much all have (or, for many of the worst offenders, *had*) ministerial credit cards and seemingly unfettered access to junkets upon which the temptation to further their own or their partner's business interests seems virtually irresistible for some.

Who could forget (or, in the case of the perpetrator, remember) the unseemly spectacle of Judith Collins taking time out from her taxpayer funded trip to Shanghai for the purposes of furthering her Justice portfolio to dive across town so as to drop in at her husband's business for a promotional event? Or the shadowy and insidious dinner with a Chinese border control official that accompanied it, wherein Oravida sought to use its personal connection to the Crown via a Minister to try and ensure favourable treatment by a foreign power.

It's bad enough that Collins decided to effectively use taxpayer money to directly further her husband's business interests ... it's worse that she then attempted to use her status as a Minister of the Crown to do likewise. We entrust Ministers with their special, sacrosanct status precisely because we theoretically believe that they're more capable than others of looking past their own personal foibles and proclivities to perceive, then act upon, the common good. Or whatever it is Hekia Parata does.

Of course it's not like this is an especially recent problem. During National's previous term in office, Minister of Internal Affairs Richard Worth (a man and MP whom we may possibly ascribe the single noteworthy characteristic of "being less charismatic and/or likeable than Rodney Hide") was pinged for similar behavior over his conduct on a Ministerial trip to India, in which he apparently attempted to further his own personal business interests off the back of said Ministerial position.

Around the same time, then-Minister of Ethnic Affairs Pansy Wong managed a similar trick of "Pulling a Collins"; insofar as she used a taxpayer funded trip to China and her Ministerial status for the purposes of furthering her spouse's business interests. This earns an additional series of outrage points from me for being incurred during the course of her husband's treasonous actions in hobbling Kiwi manufacturers and employers so he could line his pockets. I note with amusement the additional spectacle of an official spokesperson for Prime Minister John Key describing Labour's Pete Hodgson as a "fuckwit" for revealing all of this. They just love transparency, don't they, these Nats.

From the other side of the aisle, we also have the sad spectacle of MPs like Chris Carter and Mita Ririnui; the former of whom indulged in a rather lengthy shopping list including flowers for his partner and various forms of spa, while the latter contented himself with a set of ministerial golf clubs and a bike.

There was also that thing Shane Jones did; but I really don't believe that counts under the same rubric as just about everyone else in this article, on grounds that Jones took steps to repay the misspending *as soon as he became aware of it* and well before there was any hint or suggestion that Ministerial credit card spending would ever see the light of day much less media. Or, in other words ... I buy his story that it was an accident, and that he did everything possible to fix it due to conscience rather than impending political pressure/damnation.

Then again, it's also eminently possible for Ministers to engage in eye-watering wastage and downright objectionable use of the taxpayer's funding on seemingly legitimate business.

Just this week, for instance, we've had shocking revelations that Trade Minister Tim Groser managed to tot up a bill of $300 for a dinner in Singapore featuring the protected Antarctic Toothfish. Now admittedly, in this instance, $300 is arguably not an unreasonable sum for a high powered political banquet, and the problem is the faux-pas inherent in being seen to dine out on something rare and endangered. Or possibly the animal cruelty inherent in the foie gras. In any case, the nationalist in me is at least slightly pleased that $90 of that was spent buying a fine bottle of Otago Pinot Noir. If only the Nats had this kind of economic nationalist approach to *all* their government procurement decisions! (Seriously. New policy built off NZ First's nationalist Government Procurement bill. If you are a Minister of the Crown entertaining foreign dignitaries, you *must* do your bit for the Kiwi economy by buying your table at least one bottle of fine-as Kiwi wine!)

For the truly deplorable, however, there was the ghastly spectacle of Simon Bridges spending an amazing TWO HUNDRED AND FORTY THOUSAND DOLLARS on entertaining oil executives during the Rugby World Cup and with a view to encouraging their dangerous, dirty industry to set up shop here.

Incredibly, Bridges portrays this as being a "modest amount" ... a claim I can't take seriously when we realize that it's somewhere in the region of FOUR TIMES the COMBINED amount of National seatwarmers Claudette Hauiti and Paul Foster-Bell's *entire* annual usage of the domestic travel perk - and these two are already two of the biggest spending MPs in this regard.

You'd think, particularly after National amended the Crown Minerals Act to reduce the share of royalties New Zealand keeps from extractive industries, that these oil barons would be able to pay for their own supper ... but I guess not.

In any case, these woeful misuses of the public purse aren't simply important because they are, ipso facto, a wastage of taxpayer funding by a government that is hell-bent on cutting every item of "waste" it possibly can off its expenditure in a quixotic pursuit of Surplus At Any Cost (ha), and therefore hypocritical in the extreme.

No, the importance of these lapses of judgement and oversight by our elected representatives (including some of the highest and mightiest in the land) is that they betray the humanity and the failability that lurks beneath the well-armoured facade of hyper-competence that many MPs and just about all Ministers strive to project. (including the time Prime Minister John Key's ministerial credit card was used to purchase $390 worth of stuff at a party pill shop and $400 at a tobacconist. One wonders if he then hit Sky City Casino for a little "Fear & Loathing of the National Party" style action subbing in BZP for mescaline)

They also, in some cases, betray a breathtaking sense of entitlement and self-importance that truly gives human form and flesh to Rudyard Kipling's old quote about politicians being "little tin gods on wheels". The wheels bit has always perplexed me, but I guess that's just because we here in the political underworld like moveable feasts.

To #Renationalize me some Margaret Thatcher (a fraught, and dangerous task) ... "the trouble with being part of the National Party is sooner or later you run out of other people's money".

And on September 20th ... that's EXACTLY what's going to happen to some of these big-spending Nats!

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