Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Standard vs transparency

Over at The Standard, a guest poster argues against transparency for parliamentary expenses as it will save us from expenses "sideshows":

Why not go more open, transparency’s always good right? Yeah, if the media wouldn’t act like children. Several mornings ago I had to listen to the inane, yet inevitable: a reporter asking Metiria Turei why she flew on aircraft since she was in the Greens. Equally stupid would be asking Boscawen why he used our National Carrier.

Can you imagine what it would be like all if MPs’ expenses were published? I would just about be happy to pay my share of the $14 million, even if I know some was misappropriated, if it would spare me from the interminable questioning that will result from expenses being released to the media.

There are two things worth pointing out here:
  • Just a few years ago, politicians were making exactly the same argument in response to the suggestion that their financial interests should be disclosed. But the media coverage failed to live up to their fears. After an initial flurry of interest when the first register of pecuniary interests was published, it now gets a single wire story a year when the information is released, highlighting the wealthiest or most dubious MPs. The same is likely to happen with Parliamentary expenses.
  • The UK Parliamentary expenses scandal is not a "sideshow". It exposed widespread, pervasive corruption and an immense sense of entitlement amongst the UK's political representatives, as well as actual criminal behaviour. Behind their cloak of secrecy, MPs were committing fraud and tax evasion. And that is something the public deserves to know about, and is entirely justified in being outraged about.
Like Colin Espiner, I doubt our MPs are rorting the system like their UK counterparts - the structure of our expenses system (in which every claim is overseen by party whips as well as Parliamentary Services staff) and our political culture make that unlikely. But unless we have transparency, we can never be sure. Secrecy means unaccountability - and that is something we can never allow in our politicians. It may be inconvenient and irritating to the politicians, but our need to keep them under control and ensure they are not ripping us off outweighs their self-interest. It's that simple.