Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Parliamentary funding and leadership contests

The Labour leadership contest is dominating the news, allowing labour to showcase its personalities and policies. So naturally the PM's spindoctors have come up with a distraction: we're paying for it:

The three contenders for the Labour leadership have confirmed taxpayers are stumping up for the cost of them flying around the country to pitch for votes.

Labour MPs are also likely to charge their flights to the taxpayer for attending any of the 12 candidates meetings planned around the country over the next two weeks.

The three contenders - Grant Robertson, David Cunliffe and Shane Jones - confirmed they would use the travel perk to campaign over the next two weeks.

But they will pay for all their other expenses, such as accommodation, out of their own pockets.

As they should. While the Speaker's Directions allow unlimited domestic air travel, they only fund accomodation for "parliamentary business". But while its unquestionably within the rules, does that make it right?

Firstly, we pay for MP's domestic travel not just so they can get from their constituencies to Wellington and back every sitting week, but also to allow them to fulfil their wider democratic purpose. Communicating policy. Investigating problems. Talking to us. We pay for them to show up en masse in Christchurch or Greymouth to show solidarity in the wake of a disaster, and we pay for them to go to South Auckland to launch employment policy outside a closed factory, because its their job to do those things. They are part of our democratic conversation - something we want our MPs to be full participants in.

But MPs aren't just individuals - they are members of political parties. And those parties play an important role both in the House and in our democratic conversation. Which is why the Speaker's Directions state that "Parliamentary business" includes "any function that... a party could be
reasonably expected to carry out in its capacity as a party, and that complements the business of the House of Representatives" (and specifically includes attending caucus and party meetings as examples of "Parliamentary business").

Parliamentary parties need leaders (both in practice and by Standing Orders). The House needs a Leader of the Opposition (ditto). These are democratic and Parliamentary functions, and I have no problem paying for them - just as I had no problem paying for all those National MPs to descend on Nelson two weeks ago. Its a core part of our democracy, and therefore something that should be publicly funded.