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