National's hypocritical bunkle over housing allowances
A number of National party ministers are renting out their own Wellington apartments at a profit while they claim allowances from the taxpayer to live more expensive homes. Murray McCully, Tim Groser and Phil Heatley essentially have Wellington property investments indirectly subsidised by the taxpayer by the fact they don't have to live in them. Additionally, Bill English claims around $50,000 a year of allowances to pay the mortgage on his $1.2 million dollar Wellington home.
When the story concerning Bill English's home first broke I was prepared to consider he may have a special case given it would be difficult to house his large family in a typical ministerial house. That said I expect that one could be found if required.
Yet as I thought about it more, two things made me less sympathetic. The first was the revelation of the rort being played by other ministers who already have Wellington apartments. More seriously, as my mind cast back to 2001 it became very clear that many of the Ministers in question are being simple hypocrites.
In 2001 National attempted to make a big issue out of Labour Minister Marian Hobbs and Alliance Minister Phillida Bunkle claiming out-of-town allowances to subsidise Wellington accommodation, worth up to $16,000 a year, while they were on the Wellington Central electoral roll. Both were eventually cleared of wrongdoing, but Bunkle did not get her job back.
In 2001 now local Government Minister Rodney Hide expressed disappointment* that an Auditor General's review of out-of-town accommodation allowanaces paid to Wellington based MPs was only going to look at the rules rather than the two MPs concerned, Hobbs and Bunkle. I very much doubt Rodney will be consistent and now say Prime Minister John Key's review should concentrate on the behaviour of certain individuals instead of just looking at the rules.
So what were Bill English, and Murray McCully saying in 2001 about this issue? Indeed it could be said McCully invited such comparisons in a speech to the house on 14 February 2001.
"I take the opportunity today to remind two members of this House of some words they have used on previous occasions, and to invite them to inspect their conduct of recent weeks against the yardsticks that I believe they have created for themselves."
Quite. Your turn Mr McCully. It is also interesting that in your attack on Bunkle you suggested the court of public opinion is a better guide as to what is right - so you can hardly claim to hide behind the rules now can you?
"To most members of the public, that looks like a person who lives in Wellington inquiring of the Parliamentary Service Commission, before she had even become a member, what she would have to do to collect the allowances, then contriving her circumstances so as to be able to complete the assertions that she did complete, and thus collect the Wellington allowance. That is how it looks to ordinary New Zealanders."
To most ordinary New Zealanders collecting rent on a Wellington apartment you own while you live in another taxpayer funded house looks like a taxpayer funded money making scam. Yet McCully's own words would also seem to doom his own deputy leader.
Bill English moved his family to Wellington some years ago - its where his wife works, and where his kids go to school. On these grounds most members of the public would regard him as a Wellington based MP. Claiming you live apart from your family in Clutha Southland seems like contriving your circumstances to collect allowances, which is rather similar to how the public regarded Phillida's claims she lived in Waikane.
With Heatley and English claiming between $48,000 and $52,000 its worth noting this is over three times the value of the allowances claimed by Hobbs and Bunkle.
On 14 February 2001 Bill English made this contribution to the debate on the Prime Ministers Statement
"Today's Evening Post headline sets the tone for the Government for the year: ``Ministers face legal probe''. When have we ever seen a headline like that in a newspaper? Two Ministers face a legal probe for a couple of simple reasons. One reason is that Marian Hobbs told Wellington Central people that she was a Wellington Central resident, while she was claiming an allowance for being an out-of-town MP. Ms Bunkle had any number of houses, one of which appears not to have existed while she was claiming an allowance for living in it. There will be more to be disclosed about that. But that is the tone that has been set. "
Has Bill 'any number of houses' English set the tone for his own Government this year? If you were to take his own words at face value it would appear so.
* Source: TVNZ, 25/1/01 'Another inquiry into MP allowances'