Bryce Edwards: MP “Junkets” to Japan are just the tip of the iceberg 

Bryce Edwards: MP “Junkets” to Japan are just the tip of the iceberg 

The international travel of parliamentarians has a tendency to get them into hot water. Perhaps it’s because they travel so much, at significant cost to the taxpayer. Or perhaps it’s because they tend to include non-parliamentary activities in their schedule. Sometimes they manage to catch an important match, and in some cases engage in questionable private business activity.

For example, in the last decade there have been scandals involving ministers travelling to China and mixing politics with business – Judith Collins fell into disrepute over her meetings with Oravida (a company involving her husband), and Pansy Wong resigned from Cabinet and Parliament after she and her husband were seen to be breaking the rules about taxpayer funded travel.

All sides of politics have endured these international travel scandals. Even Hone Harawira was caught skipping out on a parliamentary conference in Europe and going off to Paris with his wife for some sightseeing. And Rodney Hide shed tears in front of cameras when he apologised for taking his partner on a trip around the world paid for by taxpayers. There have been plenty of other examples.

The “Junket” to Japan

It’s not surprising that Trevor Mallard and Gerry Brownlee are facing scrutiny for their trip to Tokyo in the weekend. As Derek Cheng reports, “Trevor Mallard and Gerry Brownlee spent about 40 hours in Japan between November 2 and 4, a trip touted as sports diplomacy”, costing the taxpayer about $24,000 – see: MPs’ trip to All Blacks game in Japan defended as trade promotion.

Brownlee is quoted as explaining that the quick trip was about New Zealand’s trade relationship with Japan: “We’ve just spent probably many tens of millions getting a CPTPP that will give NZ enormous opportunities to trade to all 11 countries … Japan, an old market for us, will see the reduction of beef tariffs and other such”.

The travel was particularly controversial because the pair attended the All Black’s test match against Japan in Tokyo. Act MP David Seymour has led the charge on this: “They are literally taking the mickey out of New Zealanders by saying a 24-hour trip that happens to coincide with the All Blacks playing was a diplomatic effort… Gerry Brownlee earns $180,000, Trevor Mallard earns $296,000. If they want to go to the rugby in Japan they can afford it whereas a lot of taxpayers can’t” – see Benedict Collins’ Seymour calls on Mallard and Brownlee to pay back $24k for taxpayer-funded ‘junket’ to watch ABs in Japan.

Seymour dismisses any notion that the trip was in the public interest: “There’s no chance that this is about taxpayer benefits. if you believe that you probably think Gerry should be running on for the ABs against England next week – it’s not a public benefit, therefore they should pay the money back.”

Trevor Mallard is also pleading that the trip was hard work: “I saw the rugby while in Japan but frankly I do prefer to watch it on TV at home, walk my dogs and do my possum traps in the Orongorongos” – see Collette Devlin’s MPs attacked for watching All Blacks on taxpayer-funded trade ‘junket’ to Japan.

Mallard also explains that as Parliament’s Speaker he is seen to have extra authority in other countries: “While to most people from New Zealand I’m just Trev from Wainui, actually having the speaker who is ranked just behind the prime minister is seen as important [in Japan] and number of people from Japan thought it was an honour to be able to meet me.”

Former Speaker David Carter has spoken out against the trip. The above article reports: “Carter said on Tuesday he would not have gone on the trip and the public would make their own judgment about it.”

Other politicians have come to the aid of Mallard and Brownlee – including Simon Bridges and Jacinda Ardern. And New Zealand First’s Shane Jones has said the criticism is “churlish and petty”, saying “Lay off them… Trade and rugby, I’ve discovered, are never that far apart. One of the greatest trade in human capital are rugby players overseas” – see Derek Cheng’s Speaker on Japan trip: I would have preferred to watch the All Blacks game on TV at home.

But Seymour isn’t giving up. On RNZ’s Morning Report today he referred to the justifications given by the pair as just “post-rationalisation” of “a terrible abuse and waste of taxpayer’s money” – see: David Seymour on Japan junket: Trevor Mallard ‘a well-known sports fanatic’.

Seymour thinks there’s a pattern of rorting when it comes to Mallard: “Trevor Mallard … is a well-known sports fanatic who’s made a habit actually of travelling to sports events throughout his career”.

In this regard, Newstalk ZB’s Barry Soper seems to agree, and sarcastically recommends some further parliamentary travel next week, which might happen to coincide with more All Black matches: “in the interests of sports diplomacy, who knows, they could be off to London as Parliament goes into recess on Thursday to talk about Brexit and they could stay on for the following weekend in Ireland to talk the trade deal we’re negotiating with the European Union. But then they’d have to suffer another two All Black test matches while they’re there” – see: Trevor Mallard and Gerry Brownlee’s dubious junket to watch All Blacks.

The public appears critical of the trip. See, for example, 1News’ Readers respond to Trevor and Gerry’s $24k Japan rugby ‘junket’ – ‘what a bloody joke’. And it’s not just ordinary voters either. Former National (and New Zealand First) MP, Tau Henare lashed out on Twitter at Mallard and Brownlee: “Business Class Fares to Tokyo + Accommodation times 2 = $24,000 This is corrupt, either #PayItBack or resign. You know who you are!”

Other expensive political travel

Of course, we now know about the millions of dollars spent by MPs and Ministers each year on international travel, because it’s disclosed every four months as part of politicians agreeing to be more transparent. And really, the $24,000 spent by Mallard and Brownlee in the weekend is only minor in comparison to what else is being spent.

There are also so-called “Speaker-led diplomacy” trips around the world. For example, every year the Speaker takes a delegation of MPs on a major trip to visit other parliaments in exotic places.

This year’s trip – although not widely publicised – was in April to Singapore, Spain, Portugal, and the United Kingdom – see the Speaker’s press release: Parliamentary delegation to promote New Zealand’s national interest abroad. And there was also a cross-party trip to the Pacific last month. In fact, there appear to be dozens of parliamentary trips each year – which can be seen on the Parliamentary website here: Inter-Parliamentary Visits.

The good news is that one MP has announced today that he’s cancelling his next international trip – see Jason Walls’ National MP cancels fact-finding mission to Czech Republic, says he has all the info needed.

Finally, there’s another controversial bill that taxpayers are still having to pay – the travel perk granted to former MPs and their spouses who are still claiming some very large entitlements for international travel. I’ve dug up the most recent numbers here: Former politicians spend $1.1m on travel