John Armstrong writes in the Weekend Herald:
The time has come for Bill “Double Dipton” English to end the charade.
It has been apparent for a while that it is no longer tenable for him to stipulate his primary place of residence as being in his Clutha-Southland electorate when his real home has long been in Wellington.
I’m a bit surprised by the timing of this, as the Auditor-General is now making inquiries and presumably in time will advise whether or not Bill English has followed the rules correctly.
His highly questionable claim to be an out-of-Wellington MP – a status which made him eligible for an accommodation allowance while in Opposition and which entitles him to taxpayer-funded ministerial accommodation now he is in Government – has become unsustainable in purely political terms.
Of course there is a wider perception issue that goes beyond the rules. But I’m wary of the precedent that gets set if you punish MPs for having a family, and even worse punish them because they chose *at their own expense* to have some of their family live in Wellington with them while they are an MP.
English’s predicament has in part come about because of public expectation that MPs should reside in their electorates. That many don’t will come as a shock to many people. Those who don’t live in their electorates thus feel they have to perpetuate a fiction that they do, especially in large rural seats like English’s which feel isolated from and neglected by Wellington.
I doubt there were many people in Clutha-Southland who were unaware that during most of the year, Bill is in Wellington and his family are also. It was never a secret.
But this is not a new issue, and in fact one that the Electoral Act has been quite explicit about since at least 1956. First we have s 72(6)(b):
The place where, for the purposes of this Act, a person resides shall not change by reason only of the fact that the person is absent from that place for any period because of his or her service or that of his or her spouse, civil union partner, or de facto partner as a member of Parliament
Now this is for the purposes of electoral enrolment, but it shows that long long ago it was recognised that MPs would be forced by their job to reside outside their normal home, and that it was undesirable for this temporary relocation to be deemed a change of primary residence.
We also have s72(10)(a):
In the case of a person who is appointed to be a member of the Executive Council, or who is the spouse, civil union partner, or de facto partner of any person so appointed, the following provisions shall apply notwithstanding anything to the contrary in this section, namely so long as he or she holds that office he or she shall be deemed to continue to reside at the place of residence in respect of which he or she was registered as an elector of an electoral district (in this subsection referred to as the original district), notwithstanding his or her absence therefrom at the seat of Government or otherwise, unless and until he or she duly applies for registration as an elector of another electoral district of which he or she is, apart from the provisions of this paragraph, qualified to be an elector.
This is why both Bill and Mary English (the media have incorrectly reported she is enrolled in Wellington – she is enrolled in Clutha-Southland) are residents of Clutha-Southland for electoral purposes.
Now the electoral district enrolment is not the only test for primary residence. The Auditor-General in 2001 laid out a series of factors. Now these are not black and white in that you must tick 11/11 or 9/11 to be deemed to live in Place A or Place B. Ultimately the Speaker decides on the totality of the factors. They are:
(a) the extent of the MP’s parliamentary duties, and the amount of non-parliamentary time available to the MP to return “home”;
It takes around ten hours return (five hours each way) to get from Parliament to Dipton. And in the last decade English has held senior roles in Government and Opposition with duties around the country. I doubt there is much dispute on this factor that he has little time to return to Dipton, even if his family had stayed there.
(b) the locations where the MP spends most of that nonparliamentary time;
During most of the year it is Wellington, but during the summer break it is Dipton, as I understand it.
(c) the locations where the MP’s current spouse or partner and family live, and where other dependent family members usually live (including where they spend most time, work, or attend school);
And this is clearly Wellington.
(d) the person in whose name (whether the MP, the MP’s spouse or partner, or some other individual or legal entity) each property is owned or rented, and the utilities (e.g., electricity, telephone) are supplied;
I’m not sure but think the Dipton property is in Bill’s name and the Wellington property in the name of the Endeavour Trust.
(e) the level of the MP’s financial commitment to meeting the financial outgoings on each residence, including property maintenance;
Same for both I guess.
(f) the type of accommodation available to the MP at each residence (e.g., boarding, flatting, or full occupation), and who else lives there (other than the MP’s family);
Both are fully available.
(g) the availability of each residence for use by the MP at any time (e.g., whether it is rented out in periods of absence);
As far as I know Dipton is not rented out, during periods of absence. This is a key factor in my eyes. The provision of accommodation in Wellington is designed so that an MP is no better or worse off. If you were renting out your electorate home, then you would be gaining money.
(h) the nature and extent of the MP’s ties to each local community in which he or she has a residence;
I have little doubt Bill will have stronger ties to Dipton than Karori.
(i) the residence where the MP intends or expects to live should he or she cease to be an MP;
Bill has said he will return to Dipton when he is no longer an MP.
(j) the residence where the MP and members of his or her family are registered for electoral purposes; and
Bill and Mary are registered in Clutha-Southland. The children of voting age are enrolled in Wellington Central – as required by law.
(k) for electorate MPs, the location of the electorate.
Which is Clutha-Southland.
Now as I said there is a degree of subjectivity involved, as it is not just a case of ticking all 11 boxes one way or another. You can reasonable argue the merits.
This is why I think it is absolutely correct the Auditor-General is investigating. This is not a bad thing. This is a desirable thing.
Now John Armstrong is right that there is a wider issue of perception, and political judgements have to be made with that in mind. But personally I think it would be desirable to wait for the Auditor-General to report back before rushing to any decisions.