Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Time to extend the OIA to Parliament

In her Dominion-Post blog on Saturday, Tracy Watkins makes an obvious point about the abuse of Ministerial credit cards by Phil Heatley and Gerry Brownlee:

I bet they don't make the same mistake again. Which proves a simple argument: sunlight is the best disinfectant. Ministers can be held to account because their credit card receipts are easily accessible under the Official Information Act.

Spending by MPs and political parties, on the other hand, remains hidden behind a veil of secrecy because none of it is accessible under the Official Information Act.

We are told to trust in the fact that there are rigorous systems for policing the rules surrounding MPs' expenses. But as our story today showed, the flaws in that argument were proved within about an hour of picking up the ministerial credit card OIA request.

Officials were doing nothing more than rubber stamping whatever receipts ministers submitted. How do we know Parliamentary Service officials aren't treating MPs' expense claim the same way?

Uncovering this sort of thing is one of the key reasons we have freedom of information laws. But its not just a matter of finding mistakes and playing "gotcha". A watched government is a careful government. The threat of scrutiny stops people from getting sloppy or ignoring the rules. We've already seen this in policymaking, where the expectation that advice will be made public under the OIA has caused analysts and advisors to be more careful and make solid cases for action. And National's new Ministers and the agency which services them have just learned that same lesson the hard way. But Parliament is still immune from scrutiny.

There is no principled reason for this exemption. Instead, it looks like self-interest by self-serving politicians united by their fear of being accountable to the public. Sunlight is the best disinfectant - and if MP's fear it, then we can only conclude that they are all corrupt, venal hypocrites (or willingly covering for them). Opposition to Parliamentary transparency is just another way MP's earn their reputation.

There is a simple way MPs can reverse this: stop protecting those amongst them who abuse the public trust. If Parliament is brought within the OIA and expenses are exposed and scrutinised, then the guilty can be held accountable and driven out, while those who are honest can be seen to be so. But no MP is even trying to make this argument, let alone pushing for concrete reform by putting a member's bill in the ballot. And that speaks volumes about what a cosy, corrupt little club they are.