4 Sep 2018

MPs' travel expenses are a necessary cost, not a scandal

8:55 pm on 4 September 2018

By Matthew Hooton*

Opinion: There are many things Jacinda Ardern and Simon Bridges could be criticised about, but the cost of them doing their jobs isn't one.

National party leader Simon Bridges and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

National party leader Simon Bridges and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Ms Ardern is under fire for the alleged $80,000 cost of her one-and-a-half day trip to Nauru for the Pacific Islands Forum leaders' retreat and dinner.

More mysteriously, Mr Bridges was attacked for apparently spending a similar amount on land transport for his tour of 70 provincial towns. Newshub judged both matters worthy of leading its 6pm TV news.

Whoever is Prime Minister in some sense personifies New Zealand. We expect them to attend all the most important events from one end of the country to another.

She or he will be rightly criticised if they fail to speak at major industry conferences and award ceremonies, wherever they are held.

They are expected to visit a fair range of schools, hospitals, police stations, community projects, universities, early childhood centres, housing developments, factories, farms, orchards and other businesses to remain in touch with every aspect of the nation's progress.

Woe betide them if they miss an important arts festival or All Blacks or Silver Ferns test.

At the same time, the Prime Minister should make regular trips to China, the US, the UK, Europe, Canada, Japan and Australia, plus a range of other countries with which New Zealand has established or is developing economic or strategic relationships.

Attendance at all the regular international conferences including Apec, CHOGM and the Pacific Islands Forum is near-mandatory, as is laying wreaths at New Zealand war graves throughout the world.

Balancing all this is utterly gruelling. That Ms Ardern managed it heavily pregnant and has returned so energetically to her duties after just six weeks' maternity leave marks her as more superwoman than a realistic role-model for ordinary mums and dads.

Also extraordinary is that for the vast majority of air travel, Ms Ardern and other Prime Ministers have tended to rely on commercial aviation rather than the Air Force's Boeing 757s and Iroquois helicopters that are available to them.

New Zealanders expect to bump into Prime Ministers at airports, and we regularly do.

Leaders of the Opposition are expected to be even more accessible. Especially if previously part of a government that has just been thrown out, they should visit and re-connect with every corner of the country whose confidence they seek to re-earn.

All this comes at a significant cost but it is miniscule compared with the approximately $85 billion of spending the Prime Minister and Cabinet oversee each year.

Moreover, for military aircraft or VIP cars, the "cost" reported in the media is a mere transfer from one government account to another, with the exception of fuel and a bit of wear and tear. From the taxpayers' perspective, it costs more if the money goes to Avis, Uber or Emirates.

Part of the criticism of Ms Ardern is that her 757 is making a special trip back to New Zealand to pick her up, on account of her being a breastfeeding mum of a two-and-half-month-old baby.

But, for better or worse, Ms Ardern is our democratically elected Prime Minister and we pay what it takes for her to fulfil her duties, based on her individual circumstances.

This is hardly new. If a Prime Minister lives in Dipton, Ashburton or Te Kuiti, like Bill English, Jenny Shipley and Jim Bolger, their travel costs more than if they live in Parnell or Mt Albert, like John Key, Helen Clark and Ms Ardern.

If we are lucky enough to elect a Franklin Roosevelt as our Prime Minister, he will come with the cost of getting his wheelchair on and off the plane.

Ms Ardern deserves to be attacked for spending $2.8 billion on her pointless tertiary education bribe, and Mr Bridges for his recent buffoonery on Radio Hauraki. But both deserve to be left alone for what it costs to get them to an important regional meeting or to learn first-hand from voters in draughty provincial memorial halls what National got wrong.

Neither is skylarking. They are working harder than most of us could ever understand. And undoubtedly Clarke and Neve Gayford, and Natalie, Emlyn, Harry and Jemima Bridges would much prefer to have them at home.

*Matthew Hooton is managing director for lobbying firm Exceltium and a long-time political commentator on RNZ Nine to Noon.