Monday, November 11, 2013

Another Parliamentary rort

Since 2006, MPs have been required to declare their financial interests in an annual Register. The aim of the exercise is to ensure they have no conflicts of interest, no secret financial stake in the matters they are legislating on. But it turns out that there's a loophole: they're not required to declare the contents of superannuation schemes. And this loophole is being aggressively exploited by National MPs to hide their assets and enrich themselves at the taxpayer's expense:

Several Government politicians are using a loophole to own properties which are not declared and claim up to $78,000 in taxpayer-funded subsidies each year to pay off the mortgage.

A Herald investigation of property records for all 121 members of Parliament has discovered that six National MPs use their private superannuation schemes to own property that does not need to be disclosed - unlike assets held in trusts. This is because of an exception in the rules of the Register of Pecuniary Interests.

All six - Chester Borrows, Simon Bridges, Anne Tolley, Chris Auchinvole, Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga and Mike Sabin - live in the Wellington properties while working in the capital and claim the accommodation allowance or expenses.

There are two aspects to this. The first is the apparent rort, which sees MPs buying houses in the name of their (obscenely generous) superannuation scheme, then renting them from themselves, effectively pocketing the accommodation allowance. Its the same scam Bill English was using to pay for his house in Karori. I didn't like it then, and I don't like it now. The bigger issue though is the fact that the declaration rules around pecuniary interests allow assets to be hidden in this way. Superannuation funds were exempted on the basis that MPs would have no idea what assets a commercially available fund would hold on their behalf. But a private fund gives an MP both secrecy and control. They could be keeping anything in them, including, say, shares in mining companies, or SkyCity, or in Meridian Energy or Mighty River Power. 40 MPs have such funds (35 of them from National), but only 6 have been caught rorting the accommodation allowance / super scheme in this way. The natural question is what are the other 34 hiding from us?

When MPs are caught with their snouts in the trough, they always claim that it was "within the rules". But that misses the point completely - the objection to this practice isn't about legality, its about ethics. Its not whether MPs can write rules with loopholes they can then exploit for fun and profit, but whether it is right to do so. And its pretty clear what the public thinks the answer to that question is: it is not. An ethical person would not seek to rort the system in this way, and an ethical person in a position of responsibility would not seek to hide their assets (and thus their assets) from scrutiny. But Borrows, Bridges, Tolley, Auchinvole, Lotu-Iiga and Sabin are not ethical people. And they should not be in our Parliament.

(Meanwhile, we can file this away under the long, long list of how MPs earn their bad reputation. If MPs want to unearn it, they can close the loophole, and kick out the rorters)