In his Weekend Herald column, John Roughan excoriates Campbell Live for staging the piece of theatre in which Auckland mayoral aspirant Len Brown cut up his credit card on camera.
Accountability needs to be "rough", writes Roughan:
But it also needs a sense of proportion. The Mayor of Manukau used his office card rarely, Shane Jones did it habitually, and notably for a purpose that exposes his judgment to questions far more damaging than his means of payment.
Ministers, mayors and company executives are probably running up incidental expenses all day long. You don't have to be responsible for a very big organisation before you find yourself shelling out for all sorts of little things.
If you don't have means of easily charging the expense to the organisation you pay for it and, often as not, the sum is too small to bother yourself with the paperwork of reimbursement.
Small things add up and for anyone running a big organisation a charge card is only fair. Auckland Mayor John Banks can forswear a card but if he is being reimbursed for every blessed expense it is probably false economy for the ratepayers.
But Brown was required to "abase himself", says, Roughan, because "John Campbell still seems morally concerned." He asks, "Where do I find a candidate with the stature to meet petty questions with indifference?"
At which point it seems reasonable to ask: Does John Roughan read his own newspaper?
It's a week since that Herald editorial intoned sternly (and in some respects quite misleadingly) about Brown's case, and declared that "Mr Brown made the logical next move, seeking to regain lost ground by chopping up the credit card on national television."
The Herald's editorial continued:
But there is absolutely no need for such cards. They serve no purpose, and hint at an inflated view of entitlement. At least putting it on the ratepayer, even if only as a matter of short-term convenience, will no longer be a temptation now Mr Brown's council card has been scissored.
Yet, once the faux-moral bellyaching is put aside – and as Roughan points out – there is a case for such cards. Overall, they probably save ratepayers money. The only mayors cited by the Herald as not handling their expenses in such a fashion – John Banks and Hamilton's Bob Simcock – appear to do so as a political stunt.
But there was worse in the same edition of the paper as Roughan made his complaints. On its front page, in fact, where there was a prominent teaser:
MORE BIG SPENDERS: EX-MINISTER'S LUXURY JUNKET
It bore the image of former Defence and Tourism minister Mark Burton and referred to the paper's Page 3 lead, which was headlined: Empty room charged to ministerial card.
On one level, it's perfectly true. A London hotel room was left unoccupied for two nights while Burton and his wife took a permitted break from an official trip, at their own expense. It cost the equivalent of $1606. But, as Burton was permitted to explain – seven paragraphs down the story -- he was advised it would have cost more to have broken the room's continuous occupancy.
The story then trails off into trivia. In 2004 Burton's ministerial office spent $400 on a cheap stereo (to listen to Morning Report, one presumes) and bought a bunch of flowers. In 2006 an office staff member watched a pay-per view movie at the Hyatt in Adelaide for $14.95. Two mobile phone covers were purchased in 2006.
Let me remind you: this story was teased as MORE BIG SPENDERS: EX-MINISTER'S LUXURY JUNKET
There's plenty more. For much of Friday afternoon, the top of Stuff's rolling story on the contents of the expenses pile began:
One night at a top-end London hotel in Mayfair cost the tax-payer $1435.93, Ministerial credit card receipts reveal.
Well, actually, that's two rooms – one for the minister, David Cunliffe, and one for the staff member who travelled with him, and a breakfast and lunch each.
It took me literally a minute to deduce that, at the exchange rate of the time, the fee was about half the book rate of the hotel's most basic room, without meals. Cunliffe neither chose the hotel or booked the rooms.
The story was, in fact, not a story at all. Had this single hotel bill, plucked from 7000 pages, been compared to others in the same pile, that would have been apparent.
Hotels in London are notoriously expensive. The kind of hotel where we have traditionally accommodated senior Cabinet ministers, more so. But Ministerial Services seems to get what bargains are available.
Journalists know all this. On those occasions where they travel at the taxpayer's expense, they even stay at the same hotels as ministers.
And yet this was hurled onto the pile as another example of ministerial greed. There were other examples. For two days, broadcasters blathered about Chris Carter spending $6000 for four days' limousine hire during a conference in Australia. His explanation – that the hire was a stipulation of his Australian government hosts, on security grounds, seemed reasonable. No one, so far as I can tell, has bothered to even check it. It might spoil the story.
There are, of course, clear breaches of the rules outlined in the file – those of Shane Jones being the most alarming – and clear warnings, especially from 2006 onwards, that personal expenses could not put on the ministerial cards. And there are sensible stories that could be written about costs. What are the pros and cons of a charge-card system? And of ministerial visits themselves? Could we put up our representatives in cheaper hotels, or forbid them to offer hospitality to foreign contacts?
The Prime Minister is clearly worried he might have created a monster. Having smirked grandly about Labour's misfortunes for a day and a half, he felt obliged on Friday afternoon to declare that "media sensationalism" about foreign and trade ministers' expenses was "not helpful".
Well, duh. The document dump and following frenzy has proved to be the worst possible way of examining this issue. And yet the relatively small number of breaches, and the fact that the news media have so quickly been reduced to hauling out "stories" like those on Burton and Cunliffe suggests there was gratifyingly little of real concern.
But John Rougan can do something more than bitch about people on the telly. He's an assistant editor of his newspaper. If, as he says, he fears that spurious nitpicking scrutiny is deterring any real leadership contender from taking up the challenge of office, he can say so at this week's editorial meeting.