06 August 2009

It's not over yet for Bill English

The questions over Bill English’s ministerial housing allowance are not over yet. Mr English has tried two tactics to put an end to the crisis. First, he said that it was time we all got back to thinking about the recession. Then he decided to pay back the difference between the ministerial housing allowance and the allowance payable to any out-of-town MP who rents accommodation in Wellington. That may have satisfied public opinion to some degree for the time being. Many people are accepting this as setting an example. But it’s not over yet, and questions remain unanswered.

On 1 August English said: "I get the same deal as everyone else. This isn't about the money this is about the support I get which I appreciate that enables our family to be together." Article. Yes, but it's also helping his family pay for a valuable property in Wellington, even though his 'home' electorate is in Southland.

On 6 August, on Morning Report, John Key was saying something quite different. Mr English was not getting the same deal as other MPs, but his situation was ‘unique’ for some reason. Mr Key said there was an ‘anomaly’ between how Mr English was treated compared with others. Nonetheless, Mr Key claimed that Bill English had not broken any rules, and so the solution was to clarify the rules.

By paying back the difference between his allowance and that to which ordinary MPs are entitled, Mr English has not just admitted that his housing allowance was politically embarrassing, he has also exposed himself to deeper questions about how a family trust made it possible to get that higher allowance.

According to a report in the Herald, it appears that Mr English has had a Wellington home that is owned by an English family trust declared an official ministerial residence. How did he do that? It appears that his name was not on the family trust (though his wife’s name is on it). He then rented the house from the trust as an official ministerial residence, entitling him to the higher ministerial allowance. What information did he supply to ministerial services in order to justify this? Can we, the public, see the trust deed and the property valuation?

It’s not just that we are in a recession and that Mr English, as Minister of Finance, is cutting costs in a way that affects many members of the public, and hence that he should be setting an example. There is a further point that, as Minister of Finance, his custodianship of public funds should be above question at all times. And, at the moment, that is not the case.


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