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Q+A: Michelle Boag, Mike Williams interview

Published: 2:16PM Sunday June 13, 2010 Source: Q+A

Q A's Guyon Espiner, Paul Holmes, former National Party President Michelle Boag and former Labour Party President Mike Williams discuss MPs' spending.

PAUL Phrases like slip ups, and red blooded robust dude, and day of shame, have all been used to try and explain the misuse of ministerial credit cards. High flyer Shane Jones looks likely to be demoted, while other former and even current ministers are in trouble for raiding the mini bar and buying mirrors, expensive wine, sporting equipment, new clothing, and the list is endless. Eight boxes, 7000 pages, all the details you've ever wanted to know or not know of what ministers in the last five years of the Clark government put on their work credit cards. We had a number of serious questions we wanted to ask the Labour Leader Phil Goff, neither was Labour's Deputy Leader, Annette King, neither was David Cunliffe, neither was Chris Carter or Shane Jones, and you'll see the names of some of the politicians we invited on along the bottom of your screen, all of them declined. National's Tim Groser and Murray McCully said no. Prime Minister John Key, his Deputy Bill English, ACT Leader Rodney Hide, and Progressive Leader Jim Anderton all said no, although to be fair the Prime Minister had family commitments this morning. We asked the major party whips Chris Tremain and Darren Hughes, no again, even Parliament Speaker Dr Lockwood Smith, no no would not come on to speak about this crisis of confidence in our parliamentary leaders.

So we're going to take a closer look at exactly what's been revealed this week, with our Political Editor Guyon Espiner, who's in our Wellington studio with some of the boxes and some of the 7000 pages. Guyon good morning. What do you make Guyon of these receipts in these boxes, is it evidence of profligacy or is it simply boxes of receipts?

GUYON ESPINER - Political Editor

Oh it is evidence of profligate spending, I mean this is just about a quarter of the actual material that was delivered to the press gallery last week. These ministerial statements tell a story of people who are being careless with public money frankly. I think it's important to say what this story is about and what it's not about.

What it's not about - we expect Trade Ministers, Foreign Ministers, Ministers of the Crown representing New Zealand overseas to spend money to keep well, to sleep well, to live well overseas, that is expected. What we don't expect is for them to spend public money on private business, and that is what's been happening.

PAUL Well what are the rules on that because Ministerial Services I understand, in those documents you've got there, Ministerial Services repeatedly writes to the secretaries of ministers saying a minister may not buy private goods or services on the ministerial card, even if he intends and does pay it back.

GUYON Well that's right, I mean every box that you open and read through it contains the same warning from Ministerial Services, it says be aware of Section 3.1 of the Ministerial Guidebook, and it outlines five very simple principles. Among them, expenditure must be for official ministerial purposes. They must be documented with receipts, able to withstand audit and public scrutiny. Now you would have thought that was pretty simple, and I'm not quite sure where a set of golf clubs or some CDs from the Warehouse fits into that sort of rule book.

PAUL There is one letter from Ministerial Services I saw, it says this is inarguable - exclamation mark - ministers may not pay for private goods or services on the ministerial card. Yet Guyon they continued to cock a snoot at Ministerial Services, at the same time Ministerial Services approved the spending.

GUYON They did, and I personally don't buy this argument that Ministerial Services were too lax and it's somehow their fault. I mean those rules as we laid out, are pretty clear. These are Ministers of the Crown, we have them in charge because they have good judgement. I mean how difficult is it? One of the most extraordinary comments I've heard in this whole thing was from Jim Anderton who said you can't expect people to carry around separate cards and put some spending on this and some spending on that. Well hullo - isn't that what anyone who travels with a corporate credit card does. If it's personal business it goes on your own card, if it's work business it goes on the company card. I would have thought that for some very intelligent ministers, would have been a pretty easy bright line to draw.

PAUL Yes there'd be very few people who travel around with one card you would have thought. But we've gotta make the point that no one's done anything illegal really, and no parliamentary rule apart from that Ministerial Services one has been broken, and the monies have been paid back. What were some of the more absurd spendings that you can see? I noticed the other day there was a zappy little cellphone cover bought in London or somewhere.

GUYON Well that's right, and it's often the little things that get you in these throes, the things that people can relate to. There are some extraordinary bills, your $22000 trip from Jim Anderson around Europe. I mean some of those numbers sort of get out of your league to actually understanding, but some of the smaller things are just, they're just silly and banal. I mean Shane Jones buying Jethro Tull CDs and Aretha Franklin CDs at The Warehouse on a ministerial credit card, buying petrol. Rodney Hide bought a mirror for his office. I mean some of these things which just really shouldn't be put on a ministerial card, and I can't get my head into the space of Mita Ririnui buying a bicycle on a ministerial card. I just don't understand how anyone could ever think that that was legitimate expenditure on a ministerial credit card.

PAUL Can you quantify the damage?

GUYON The damage is wide, this is big, this is the start of a new era. I can't see that any sane minister would ever break rules to this extent, now knowing that this sort of information will be made public.

PAUL Thank you Guyon Espiner, now we're also fortunate to have with us Mike Williams the former President of Labour and Michelle Boag, the former President of National, they know the MPs they know the culture, they know the pressure of work, they know the difficulties of recruiting people to parliament. They know the works commitments demanded of our ministers. Nevertheless both of you, New Zealanders seem to be angry with parliamentarians again. Are they right given the times we're in now? What do you think Mike?

MIKE WILLIAMS - Former Labour President

Yeah they're right to be angry. It's not a good look for either party and they're all doing it. What strikes me as a commonality in this, is that it seems to be widely accepted that you could spend and then pay it back. I mean Jim Anderton was quite categorical about that.

PAUL Yeah but the correspondence is there.

MIKE I know, it's just a question of whether that gets under the Minister's nose or not, and I was talking to Andrew Little about this the night before last, and I said they're clearly not reading these documents and therefore there's a role for the party for induction to actually get it through their heads that that's the way it should be done.

PAUL What do you think, I mean some of those items Michelle, golf clubs, $500 Chinese dinners, $20,000 round trip through Europe, zappy little cellphone covers, a bicycle as Guyon says?

MICHELLE BOAG - Former National President

Well those are clearly beyond the pail, and can I say those were all Labour Ministers who put that spending on the credit card, and I have to say I think John Key should be congratulated for bringing transparency to this, because he will not have known what his own ministers had done. But in my view it actually is a reflection of character, and in my experience people who are involved in politics, become MPs, become Ministers, they're either mean and claim everything, and push the envelope, or they're not. And these people who've been caught out will be doing this right through their lives.

PAUL In other words a person who does a little bit of cheating can do the big cheating?

MICHELLE Well a person who thinks there's nothing wrong with putting stuff on a corporate credit card, or a ministerial credit card, and even paying it back, perhaps we don't know whether they had to be asked to pay it back, or they did it of their own volition.

PAUL One MP had to be asked six times.

MICHELLE Well there you go. In my view what Shane Jones has done, is nowhere near as bad as what Mita Ririnui has done, so watched a few porn movies, well so what, I'll be he's not the only MP or Minister who's done that. But to go out and blatantly purchase things and to say, oh well I didn't have my personal credit card with me, I do not believe that. I couldn't believe Mayor Len Brown saying in the paper this morning, we have one credit card between us, my wife and I, and therefore I didn't have that card with me. Well what do you do? Wake up in the morning and say darling who's got the credit card today? Why don't you just go and get your own one?

PAUL Well why don't we go and get an EFTPOS card and carry that around with the mayoral card, that'd be the simple way to do it I spose. I'm just going to go back to Guyon Espiner in Wellington. You've made a comparison Guyon between Shane Jones' ministerial credit card spending, and Michael Cullen's.

GUYON Well that's right. I think Michelle Boag makes that point very well, that this is the story of two very different types of ministers. Here's Shane Jones' credit card statements just over one year. That's one year of Shane Jones', and here's Michael Cullen, I mean that's one year of Michael Cullen, and I think you mentioned Helen Clark in your intro.

PAUL Nineteen dollars 95 for gumboots.

GUYON That's right. Disciplined ministers know what the rules are, and abide by them.

PAUL Good point, and that illustrates your point exactly Michelle. What else are we seeing? Are we seeing something of a cultural entitlement there though. We become Ministers of the Crown and somehow we cut ourselves off inside the beltway a bit, is that what we're seeing?

MIKE Well it's not what I've struck. Some of the ministers I know didn't seem to have credit cards at all, because I usually had to reach for mine with monotonous regularity.

PAUL Because they're tight?

MIKE Well tight or avoiding this kind of thing, I don't know, but I would say there's probably a lot more water to go under this bridge. Michelle, there's a $500 dinner going to appear next week by a National member, who paid it back instantly. Now it seems to me the nub of this is that many of them were of the opinion, if you paid it back straight away, no interest, that was okay.

PAUL Does that apply in business generally. You both run successful businesses. Would you let an employee use the company credit card like that. I'll have a $500 dinner tonight but I'll pay you back tomorrow.

MICHELLE No, most businesses now don't have corporate credit cards. There's been a bit shift away from them for this reason, and if it's a legitimate expenditure, if they're a senior executive you would expect them to have a credit card of their own, and if they came into the office the next day and asked for it to be reimbursed on the basis of a receipt, that's perfectly acceptable. What is not acceptable is saying, oh I didn't have my own credit card with me, number one because I think it's not credible, and number two, how on earth were you going to pay for all your personal expenditure. It shows an intent to misbehave.

PAUL On the other hand, you were mentioning this before Michael, you and Michelle have both gone round the country trying to recruit good people who can earn a lot of money in the private sector, bright clever people, into public service where there's never going to be the big divvies. Then we look at Mr Groser has incurred some controversy. I think 92 bottles each of those mini bar bottles in Copenhagen costed, on the Jim Beam. Now we forget don't we that ministers do work nearly every hour of the day and night, they travel around the country, lonely cold motel rooms, hotel rooms, eleven hour flights travelling to Europe and so forth.

MIKE Yeah I think that the initial point you make, there's a piece by John Roughan in the Herald yesterday, and it talks about how difficult it's getting to get people into public life, and one of the functions of a president, as Michelle will know, is to go out and recruit the best and brightest, and I feel a sense of responsibility. I was one of the people who talked Shane into running for parliament, and I have to tell you at the outset neither he nor his wife were at all keen on the idea, and I bet they're throwing daggers at me right now. It's getting ridiculous. We've got an article in the Herald on Sunday today, that outs Mayor John Banks for lying about his height for godsake. They are now living in fish bowls. How on earth are you going to get good quality people into parliament when they go into an outfit which actually doesn't pay that well.

PAUL But look Michael, if you were working for someone and you'd been asked six times to pay back what you'd spent privately on the corporate credit card, not only would you have to pay the money back, but there could be a Police investigation prosecution...

MIKE Absolutely.

PAUL What's good for the goose has gotta be good for the gander.

MIKE Oh yeah no you're absolutely dead right.

MICHELLE Absolutely. And in that respect I would like to see the credit card statements or the claims that some of these journalists who've been berating our politicians are making, how about they front up with their credit cards and their expenses. You know people either push the envelope and claim for every taxi fair or they don't (edited).

MICHELLE Either it's in their character, they either do it or they don't, and what I'd say to people, if there are MPs or ministers who have engaged in this sort of behaviour, and I don't have a problem with Tim Groser buying drinks for his colleagues or for people he's got to entertain, and I don't have a problem with Murray McCully's launder bill, absolutely. I don't have a problem with Rodney Hide's mirror. I tell you what I bet what Rodney Hide said, if I requisitioned this through Ministerial Services it'll take six weeks and cost $250. He went down the road, bought a $20 mirror on a credit card, stuck it on his wall, good on him.

PAUL Nevertheless we do see some deficits done we, we do see some downsides to an apparent confusion which as you say is not really a confusion, shouldn't be. Thank you both very much for coming on Q A.