Larceny, Lace and the Legislature

Does the public realise it is funding the racier reading habits of its MPs?

By Gordon Campbell

At last count in December, Cabinet Ministers get paid $249,000 a year and ordinary MPs $134,000, before the usual array of perks kicks in. Some people would think that should be enough money for them to buy their own supply of airport novels. Apparently not. One of the interesting aspects of the Parliamentary Library in Parliament Buildings is that it contains a fairly extensive collection of what can only be described as light reading, primarily for the use of MPs…and, in a touching example of trickle down largesse, for the use of their staff as well.

It is quite a collection. When I last checked the shelves on March 17th, they contained four novels by Ruth Rendell, six novels by Kathy Reich, seven by John Grisham, nine by Jodi Picoult and ten – count ‘ em ten – thrillers by James Patterson, plus sundry offerings by Wilbur Smith, Fay Weldon, Penny Vincenzi, Lee Child and Danielle Steele… amidst a diverse collection of other romantic novels, thrillers and potboilers. Currently, the reading options that the taxpayer has thoughtfully provided to entertain their parliamentary representatives include the saucy likes of The Debutant Divorcee, which is described on the dust jacket in these terms :

The most reckless and glamorous of Manhattan’s Debutant Divorcee set, Lauren captivates newly-wed Sylvia Mortimer. But while Lauren sets out on a morality-lite, orgasm –heavy Make–Out Challenge, Sylvia discovers her marriage isn’t exactly an Eternity-ad, especially when the city’s most notorious Husband Huntress zeros in on her spouse.

Navigating a world of Divorce Showers and Power Christenings, Socialite Babies and Professional Friends, Gorgeous West Village Wives and Un-Google-able Men, Sylvia fears her husband is straying and starts asking, as Lauren says, “ Who needs a husband, anyway?’

Which is, arguably, not the sort of question the taxpayer should be popping into the minds of MPs as they dutifully work their lonely way through so many orgasm-lite hours far away from home. Not that the after hours reading of MPs seems to be devoted to fun and titillation entirely. Weightier tomes of extremist ideology are well represented, too. The libertarian guru Ayn Rand’s massive novel Atlas Shrugged is also in stock, and the issue slip indicates it was lent out three times in 2010. Rand’s books have had a colossal impact on whole generations of adolescent minds, as one blogger memorably noted a couple of years ago :

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

Yes, it is hard to imagine any MP or staffer, propped up with their cocoa in bed at night and slogging their way through the 50 page-plus speech by John Galt that constitutes the climax of Rand’s meisterwork. Yet the issue slip does not lie. What else is on offer for the bookish MP with time on their hands and a need for diversion? A book called Crap MPs offers a selection by Dr Bendor Grosvenor and Dr Geoffrey Hicks of the 40 worst MPs in the history of the British Parliament. Hard to tell from the issue slip whether the numerous renters were local MPs bent on self-improvement, or staff members looking for tips on how to manage their disastrous bosses.

Do MPs really need to have this stuff bought for them ? In these ascetic times when public services are in peril, it is a bit odd that the insatiable need for MPs for an endless supply of Jodi Picoult novels should have somehow escaped Bill English’s economy drive. Not that the need for discretion in such delicate matters hasn’t been recognized by all involved.

By that I mean….public tours of Parliament come into the Reading Room where these fanciful novels are shelved. Yet the view from where the public is allowed to stand consists entirely of shelves of serious works. Earnest books on political science and serious works of biography and autobiography have been pushed to the front. It is only three rows back – and beginning with shelves facing away from the gaze of the public paying for them – that the MPs’ stash of airport novels begins. Out of sight, out of mind and flying off the shelves.