Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Game is Rigged

While I was up in Auckland for a 40th, Mrs RRB enquired why I don't get more involved directly in politics. I told her that I tend to annoy more or less all the political parties. I'm the sand in the vaseline to all parliamentary parties. Well then, she said. Why don't you start your own party? I replied that I would if there was a snowball's chance of an outside party ever entering parliament. Frankly, the odds are stacked firmly against such an idea.

The only party under MMP to enter parliament without a sitting MP was Act back in 1996, and that still required former MPs to stand for the party as well as a truckload of cash to pull it off. In the four MMP elections that followed, not a single new party has entered the House. It's a closed shop.

By-elections are a good example of how parliamentary incumbency can tilt the playing field towards the insiders. Whether it's the Taranaki-King Country by-election in the Nineties or the recent Mt Albert one, parliamentary resources are brought to bear in a way that makes it impossible for non-parliamentary parties to match.

Then there's the broadcasting allocations at general elections, which not only award vast funds for the incumbent parties, but also disallow minor parties to increase their public visibility with privately funded Tv and radio advertising.

But the really recent glaring example of insular entitlement has to be the swift return of Phil Heatley to ministerial duties. Sure, the Auditor-General cleared him of serious misconduct. As Bryce Edwards points out in this good post on the subject:
It has to be remembered that Auditor General Lyn Provost (pictured on the right) is not making these rules or even commenting on the correctness or value of these rules, but is just interpreting and helping apply the rules. The rules are written, of course, by the politicians themselves.
It seems you can drive not one, but two ministerial drivers between the sides of this law:
Mr Heatley's wife drove his taxpayer-funded SUV and caught the Wellington-Picton ferry. Mr Heatley himself took a flight to Blenheim and a VIP car then took him to Picton. The Heatleys took the train to Kaikoura - a VIP driver followed in Mr Heatley's car. The Heatleys then drove their car back to Picton, but its VIP driver, stranded in Kaikoura, had to be collected by a colleague. All this was at the taxpayers' expense.
That's allowed. So is the taxpayer picking up the bill for Heatley's National Party conference expenses; food, wine and accommodation. It's also perfectly within the rules for the minister (who is paid $250,000 a year for his troubles) to charge a $6.50 Burger King to the taxpayer too. That one greasy meal sums up the petty, grabbing entitlement of a man who volunteered for public service. It stinks, but it's within the rules.

John Armstrong is rightly gobsmacked, and he cuts a lot of slack all the same. For example:
MPs are constantly hit up for donations to worthy causes and obliged to buy raffle tickets to help fund organisations in their electorates. They should not have to suffer financially for such largesse.
To borrow a phrase from The Wire, that sounds suspiciously like Clay Davis' "walk around money". It is not the taxpayers' responsibility to pay for MPs to upgrade their mana with one-on-one handouts, especially when MPs are among the top one percent of income earners in the country. That's so backward, it's downright feudal.

It is little wonder that outside parties have a hell of a problem trying to get a foot in the door of parliament. We can't all be like MPs, with their hands on the tap of other people's money. And it's no surprise that politicians are treated by the general public with the utmost contempt when blatant skimming like this is within the rules.