Gordon Campbell on the travel expenses of MPs

The issue of MPs’ travel expenses – and its disreputable cousin, government spending – have thrown up a pretty interesting moral distinction. Government spending, which provides services to the general public, is seen to be an intrinsically bad thing that must be rationed. MPs’ travel spending on the other hand, is seen as an intrinsically good thing that does not even need to be justified. It just is – here’s the amount we spent, don’t ask to know the purpose. The worth is assumed, and is beyond challenge.

The bald amounts for MP travel expenses released by the Office of the Speaker, Dr Lockwood Smith tell us nothing about the reasons for the travel. Therefore, there is no way the public can judge whether they are getting value for money. Nor are the MPs going to hold each other to account on our behalf. That would be a path of mutually assured destruction. An informal treaty seems to have arranged, whereby the collective self interest of the parliamentarians is seen to trump any wider public interest in scrutinizing the purposes involved.

One can only hope this initial release is merely a work in progress. Perhaps, during the coming weeks and months, Dr Smith will pursue with the various party machines the potential for including greater detail in any future tallies of this sort. In the interim, there is one simple solution that MPs could collectively take, or some parties like the Greens could announce – after all, on their own initiative, they were the first out of the gate a couple of months ago in releasing such information – without any further prodding by the Speaker.

It would entail this : at a time when unilateral cuts of five and ten per cent are being imposed on government departments, why doesn’t each party, or each MP, similarly vow to cut five per cent from their own travel expenses over the next six months, or ten per cent annually ? Such a move would signal that MPs – and government MPs in particular – feel bound by the same cost saving imperatives during this recession, that they are so keen to impose on the public. Undoubtedly, a lot of travel by MPs is necessary. So is a lot of spending by government departments. Virtue though, starts at home. It requires prioritization, and at times, abstinence. By committing to a five per cent reduction over the next six months, MPs would be demonstrating their readiness to practice what they are preaching to everyone else.

As things stand, the Act Party in particular look like a bunch of hypocrites. Sir Roger Douglas was on RNZ this morning justifying the use of taxpayer money for his travel – some of which involved visiting his grandchildren – partly on the grounds that he was entitled to do so, This was extraordinary. The sense of entitlement of MPs, and the feudal culture of self-indulgence – amid their clarion calls for efficiency and belt tightening by everyone else – is the main reason why the public holds MPs and Parliament in such contempt. The MPs could offer to do something about it, but don’t hold your breath.