A year after the expenses scandal that threw the UK’s parliament into crisis, aftershocks are registering in New Zealand. Inspired by the public interest and newsstand sales generated by headlines of spendthrift, moat-proud British MPs, New Zealand journalists requested the release of their MPs’ credit card statements. Eager to demonstrate that his government had ushered in a new era of accountability, Prime Minister John Key acceded to the request, and merry hell broke loose.
Perhaps Key had a hunch about what the statements would reveal, because they cast their most damaging light on the opposition. Voters had denied Labour a fourth term in government in 2008, due in large part to a perception of its MPs as entitled and hubristic. These impressions were only confirmed by the revelations, which took their most devastating toll on former Labour building minister Shane Jones, a respected politician who saw his reputation as the likely first Maori prime minister eviscerate in the space of a day.
Jones’s morning began with a radio interview in which he put his hand up to having charged NZ$5,000 (€3,000) worth of personal expenses, including hotel movies, to the taxpayer. The sum had been repaid in full. There was nothing much to see here, or so it seemed, until the interviewer asked a throwaway question as to whether the movies were blue. “I can’t recall exactly [what] they were; drugs, sex or rock’n’roll. I am a movie buff,” bumbled the former minister. By late afternoon his memory had improved, as he emotionally apologised for having for having billed at least 20 pornographic films to the taxpayer. “It’s a day of humiliation for me,” he said. “I absolutely lost the plot.”
Jones has since been demoted, along with a former education minister whose claims included hotel spa treatments, flowers for his partner, and limousine hires. The affair has exposed weaknesses in the parliamentary expenses system and details of MPs’ spending will now be released quarterly. But the marginal sums involved have prompted some commentators to scoff that the “scandal” was a beat up; if anything, a marker of the absence of corruption in a political culture routinely ranked among the world’s most transparent.
All of which will be of no comfort to Jones, who was this week trialling a new career as a talkback radio host. The shamed MP will be trading on his newfound popularity with a small demographic that approved of his forthright contrition, and has even welcomed the unveiling of a “red-blooded, robust dude” (Jones’s words) within the ranks of a party seen as distant and effete.
If successful in rebuilding his brand using the medium that was the scene of his unravelling, Jones may yet find himself back in the political fray. “As much as I want to… you can’t move on until the people move on,” he says.