Wong case de­mands more scru­tiny af­ter ‘rig­or­ous in­quiry’ wraps up

Kapi-Mana News - - OPINION -

Politi­cians are ex­pected to be ex­em­plars of thrift and shouldn’t ask the pub­lic to make any sac­ri­fices they would be un­will­ing to ask of them­selves. Yet they get ev­ery crea­ture com­fort lav­ished on them.

Be­sides shelling out for ba­sic salaries of $ 131,000 for back­benchers and $243,700 for Cabi­net min­is­ters, tax­pay­ers pick up all (or most) of the tab for MPs’ ac­com­mo­da­tion costs, Bel­lamy’s food, phone bills, power bills, taxis, li­mou­sine ser­vice and – un­til very re­cently – over­seas hol­i­day travel. ( Sit­ting MPs can ex­pect to shortly re­ceive a salary hike for los­ing that perk.)

Ob­vi­ously, this cre­ates cred­i­bil­ity prob­lems when politi­cians stress the need for aus­ter­ity by ev­ery­one else.

No-one be­grudges sub­si­dies that en­able MPs to per­form their pub­lic du­ties. Tax­pay­ers draw the line over any ar­ro­gant sense of en­ti­tle­ment (aka the Chris Carter syn­drome) or when perks are in­dulged to the hilt, as for­mer Women’s Af­fairs Min­is­ter Pansy Wong seems to have done.

A Par­lia­men­tary Ser­vices ‘‘in­quiry’’, largely limited to in­ter­view­ing the Wongs, found no past ev­i­dence of ‘‘sys­tem­atic abuse’’ of travel perks by the cou­ple.

How­ever, this nar­row in­ves­ti­ga­tion iden­ti­fied one case where the cou­ple broke the rule that the perk in ques­tion should not be used for per­sonal busi­ness pur­poses. For that ‘‘ un­planned and in­ad­ver­tent’’ trans­gres­sion, the Wongs will be asked to pay back $474.12 for one busi­ness-re­lated trip to China.

The episode brings Par­lia­ment into dis­re­pute. Few peo­ple who, for ex­am­ple, stole from their em­ployer (or com­mit­ted ben­e­fit fraud) to the tune of $ 474.12 would re­ceive clemency, and fewer still would es­cape be­ing fired and pros­e­cuted, re­gard­less of whether the of­fence was part of a sys­tem­atic pat­tern.

Even first-timers usu­ally face the con­se­quences of their ac­tions. With the Wongs, though, that seems the least of the prob­lem. Thanks to the bizarre logic of the in­ter­na­tional travel perk sys­tem – scrapped re­cently for sit­ting MPs, but re­tained for for­mer MPs elected be­fore 1999 – only overt busi­ness deal­ing has been frowned upon.

The hol­i­day travel costs of el­i­gi­ble for­mer MPs ( and their spouses) re­main heav­ily sub­sidised. Thus, Sammy Wong could make three trips to China in 2005 to re­search his fam­ily tree, with one such trip in­clud­ing a visit in Malaysia to see friends and school­mates.

These trips fell within the rules, and qual­i­fied for re­bates of $5540.

In 2007, the Wongs flew to San Diego for the fu­neral of Pansy’s brother in-law, at a cost of $11,883 to tax­pay­ers. All up, the Wongs pock­eted re­bates of $54,149 in sub­si­dies for their in­ter­na­tional travel since Novem­ber 2000.

Con­ceiv­ably, the pub­lic de­rived some ben­e­fit from Wong’s other trips.

Yet in the cases cited above, no pub­lic good was served.

The re­peated use of this perk by the Wongs makes a mock­ery of the Govern­ment’s cur­rent calls for belt-tight­en­ing on health and ed­u­ca­tion, or on wage in­creases.

Un­for­tu­nately, Prime Min­is­ter John Key has not only failed to crit­i­cise Wong for the ex­am­ple she set – and point­edly, he failed to re­fer her ac­tions to the Au­di­torGen­eral at the out­set, for ex­haus­tive scru­tiny – but he is giv­ing ev­ery sign of wel­com­ing her back into Cabi­net, in due course.

Bar­ring the Au­di­tor-Gen­eral’s in­ter­ven­tion, this may be the end of any process of rig­or­ous in­quiry, and pub­lic re-as­sur­ance.

Gor­don Camp­bell is an ex­pe­ri­enced po­lit­i­cal jour­nal­ist and colum­nist who has writ­ten for The Lis­tener and Scoop.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.