29 May 2024

Lobby group questions MPs expenses amid cost of living pressures

10:17 am on 29 May 2024
Jordan Williams, Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Taxpayers' Union.

Taxpayers' Union executive director Jordan Williams. Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

The Taxpayers' Union is questioning why MPs are not tightening their travel spending at a time when many people are having to cut costs.

Politicians spent nearly $3 million on accommodation and travel in the first three months of this year, according to the latest quarterly expenses for MPs.

Broken down over the three months to March, expenses came in at more than $1.5m for MPs and well over $1m for ministers.

This all coincides with the government axing thousands of public sector jobs and a cost-of-living crisis putting sustained pressure on household budgets.

Taxpayers' Union executive director Jordan Williams told RNZ the country's elected representatives are not reading the room.

"It's pretty distasteful at a time when everybody else is having to pull back, MPs do not appear to have got the memo," he said.

"But the bigger question is are we getting value for money? Are MPs travelling to meet with local communities actually doing the work or are they taking taxpayers for a ride?"

Every three months, MPs and ministers have to disclose what they have spent on accommodation in and outside of Wellington, as well as travel.

Ministers - fulfilling portfolio responsibilities - naturally rack up the biggest bills.

But some of the biggest spending MPs live within an hour's drive of the capital.

There is National's MP for Ōtaki, Tim Costley, who spent nearly $33,000, including nearly $12,000 for air travel.

Barbara Edmonds

Labour's MP for Mana Barbara Edmonds. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Labour's MP for Mana Barbara Edmonds spent nearly $18,000 - most of it on plane trips.

Williams said it was too much.

"Without a doubt some do take the proverbial, now it's very clear some MPs treat the travel simply as an entitlement."

Party leaders, however, have jumped to their MPs defence.

National's Christopher Luxon told RNZ, "all of our MPs understand the importance of being careful with taxpayer money", while Labour leader Chris Hipkins said, "I wouldn't call them perks, in all cases they're there for a work-related reason".

Exactly what these "work-related reasons" are do not need to be specified or disclosed by MPs - something Williams wants changed.

"Ministers are accountable under the Official Information Act so you can look into individual trips and assess whether taxpayers got value for money.

"The problem with these figures, applicable to MPs, is you only get the total. It's impossible to tell whether someone's actually using the entitlement, working hard, visiting communities, or whether they're actually just taking the spouse and kids on a holiday on the taxpayer," Williams said.

Some MPs have explained their travel costs after questioning about the figures.

Edmonds, who is Labour's finance spokesperson, said she has been busy in her new role.

"Since being the finance spokesperson I've been to Auckland almost every week. I have to meet with stakeholders there so I don't excuse the fact I need to get out there and meet with stakeholders that are not just in the Wellington beltway," she said.

National MP Tim Costley listens to evidence in the Foreign Affairs Committee.

National's MP for Ōtaki Tim Costley. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Costley, a backbench MP with no responsibilities, said in a statement to RNZ that he travels extensively for work throughout the country and sometimes with his family.

He was not the only one paying for family flights with taxpayer money.

Labour's Arena Williams flies her children - aged 4 and 6-years-old - to Wellington twice a month when the House is sitting.

Hipkins defended it, telling RNZ it was a question of ages and stages.

"For MPs that have very young children they will more likely be accompanying them to and from Wellington, and I support that because I don't want people to be in a position where they think, I'm having a family I'm going to have young children, and that's not compatiable with being a member of Parliament."

There was no suggestion MPs or ministers have broken any of Parliament's expenses rules when it comes to travel, but the Taxpayers' Union said it was time the rules were changed.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs