Time’s up on international travel perk

Having worked in Parliament, and seen how shitty most of an MPs job is, I’ve always been pretty moderate on the issue of – supporting transparency, but not a major overhaul.

However I think that the international travel perk has now had its day, and is so toxic for an MP to use it, they should move to abolish it. I’ll come to that later. Lots of articles to quote first.

The Herald yesterday reported the Speaker:

Speaker Lockwood Smith went on the front foot yesterday over MPs’ international travel perks, saying the subsidies are a well-established part of an MP’s salary package and that he feels partly responsible for the opprobrium attached to them at present.

“They have been deducted from their salaries. If it wasn’t for this, their salaries would be higher.”

I’m glad to see Lockwood making that point, as it is often overlooked. In fact I think I was the first to cover the fact, back in June, that the 2003 determination actually deducted $5,800 off each MPs salary – representing the average private benefit of the international travel perk. The 2003 determination wasn’t in fact even online – so I got a copy sent to me and uploaded it.

Dr Smith believes the perks, and others, should be itemised in the MPs’ pay decisions.

He said he had asked the Remuneration Authority to present its decisions on MPs’ salaries differently to explain how the travel perks fit in but it did not do so in its latest one.

“I have written to them again because I think it is helpful because it does help people to see.

In fact they have not detailed this since 2003, and I’ve also previously said it would be beneficial for them to do so.

Dr Smith said he did not believe that the public or even most MPs realised that the travel subsidy had been counted when calculating MPs’ pay and he wanted to make sure the facts were know.

The travel subsidy was a “subtle way” of recognising and rewarding experience.

MPs generally get paid the same, so it is the one thing that rewards an MP purely on the basis of longevity. However to counter that, longer serving MPs are more likely to be Ministers or Select Committee Chairs.

Regardless of the original rationale for it, I think Parliament should move to abolish the perk. This will mean an increase in salaries – but it also means costs are more certain.

In a related issue Trevor Mallard (wisely) has blogged he is heading to London using the perk to meet some undisclosed people to chat to on education policy, and to watch some rugby.

This sums up quite well the case for and against subsidised travel. I personally do think that MPs using international travel to discuss policies and programmes is worthwhile. Most new policies will come from overseas experience, rather than getting dreamed up fresh in a department.

On the other hand, we don’t know how much of the trip is policy, and how much is rugby. It is pretty easy to arrange to meet some mates for a chat, to justify a trip. Not saying this is the case here – but that the problem is no-one really approves the trips – it is a “right” that sits with that MP.

So here is what I would do.

  1. Abolish eligibility for subsidised international travel for MPs from 1 July 2010
  2. Increase funding for each parliamentary party by up to say $5,000 an MP, allowing MPs to apply to the party leadership for a partial or full international travel subsidy. As it will come out of a limited budget for the party (what you do not spend on travel you can spend on communications, staff etc) the leadership will want to be sure there is genuine parliamentary and/or political value from the travel.
  3. Have the Remuneration Authority recalculate MPs salaries, without the deduction for subsidised international travel.

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