24 July 2014
The ruckus over a National MP’s spending and a critical performance review of the Parliamentary Service highlight two unsatisfactory aspects of the way we currently run Parliament.
Spending by MPs has always been a vexed question and control over it has never been satisfactorily resolved. The approach to date, typified by the widely-hailed but actually fundamentally flawed report of former Auditor-General Kevin Brady, has been to treat MPs as just another branch of the public service and apply broadly the same types of rules and controls to their spending. (What is about retired senior public servants, who seem to have an inbuilt resentment of MPs? Henry failed like Brady in exactly the same way.) Under this approach, the focus has been to empower the Parliamentary Service to exercise greater control and accountability, but this has essentially failed.
The current approach is also constitutionally suspect. Parliament is elected to oversee and hold to account the executive branch of government for its conduct and performance, and is in turn, held to account by the public every three years for its stewardship. Yet the mentality of the Brady approach, which has been the prevailing norm of recent years, has actually turned that on its head. Parliament and Members of Parliament are now in so many ways subservient to rules devised by anonymous risk-averse bureaucrats, who like to see every situation as being able to be fitted in one or another set of neat boxes. (There are also strong shades of this blind rigidity in the way the Electoral Commission chooses to administer electoral law.)
However, there is a simple and fair solution available – make MPs fully accountable to the public in the first instance, and not the bureaucracy, by bulk-funding them for their office and related expenditure and requiring them to publish annual accounts of their expenditure (as Ministers are obliged to do already). Under this model, the bureaucrats’ role will become the proper one of assisting and advising elected representatives, not controlling them. Control and accountability will return to the people of New Zealand to be exercised through the ballot box.
Yes, but will this ever happen? Sadly, probably not, I suspect. And the reason is simple and selfish. The last thing National and Labour want is for their MPs to have more individual control of their own spending, because that could make them more independent of the collective, and loosen party discipline. Just imagine what a recalcitrant MP could in such circumstances! Remember the fuss whenever an MP leaves a party and takes their funding with them. Having MPs exercise that type of independence while staying in the Caucus is just too difficult to contemplate, so the fallback becomes the current unsatisfactory externally imposed rules.
So, an accepted unsatisfactory situation looks set to continue. Bureaucrats whom no-one voted for will continue to try to impose arbitrary and unworkable rules on their political masters, who will continue to devise ways to thwart them. And every now and then, there will be a stupid MP who gets caught, and further damages the standing and credibility of all MPs as a consequence.
Good copy while it lasts, it may well be, but it is certainly not good governance.