Now the Democrats are demanding from the CIP that same information they refused to make when in government: just how much civil list travel is costing the public purse each year. Deputy opposition coalition leader Tamaiva Tuavera says an Official Information Act request has been lodged with the Ombudsman office, asking for disclosure of the travel costs of Prime Minister Henry Puna and Finance Minister.
Tuavera did not clarify for which period of travel the opposition coalition wants the costs revealed. In 2011, Puna announced what appeared to be a historic decision that no other prime minister in over 20 years had been bold enough to make: with the support of cabinet, he would lift the ban on public disclosure of civil list travel figures. He repeated that promise last year. However, Puna has not delivered on those promises and the tens of thousands of dollars racked up by travelling ministers and ordinary members of parliament remains a secret. Local media representatives including Cook Islands News editor Cameron Scott say no information has been forthcoming from the government. Despite requests, Clerk of Parliament John Tangi has refused to release civil list travel costs, says Scott.
In 2011 the PM was reported he didn’t know why the travel figures “have been so top secret.”
Puna said at the time his office would prepare a cabinet submission for presentation and subject to being approved, the secrecy surrounding the cost of MP travel to the country would be a thing of the past.
“It goes without saying that there’s nothing sensitive about those figures. We are talking about public funds and people have a right to know about them. Personally, I have no difficulties making public that information,” the prime minister said. Five years later it appears that the current administration does have difficulty making public civil list travel costs public. The Office of the Prime
Minister has released travel figures once covering the period 2013 to 2014. For years, requests by the media to the Clerk of Parliament under the OIA for release of the travel costs information have been unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, the Civil List budget – which pays MP\s salaries, perks and travel costs, keeps increasing each year. The sum of $2.349 million budgeted for the 2015/16 financial year was bumped up to $2.359 for 2016/17.
The ban on releasing travel costs was imposed over two decades ago in a ruling made by the then Speaker of Parliament, the late David Hosking. Hosking would have made that ruling at the urging of the government of the day: a Cook Islands Party/Democrat coalition administration under the prime ministership of the late Sir Thomas Davis.
IT WAS designed to protect from public scrutiny and inevitable criticism, what civil list travel costs the Cook Islands taxpaying public each year.
In September last year an OIA request to Clerk John Tangi was made that asked which countries PM Puna had travelled to in the past 12 months, the reason for his travel to those countries and the amount of time he spent away on each of his separate overseas missions. Although Tangi was not asked to reveal any costs, he responded via email that he would have to seek the advice of Crown Law before releasing that information. In February this year, Tangi claimed to be working on responding to the questions, but nothing has been received from the Clerk of Parliament. On other occasions Tangi has told CI News reporters that there are other priorities that are more important than giving out the travel cost of politicians.
The parliament-protected travel information ban is highly unusual in a democracy.
According to the numbers, which included travel for the financial year from July 1, 2013 to June 30, 2014, Finance Minister Mark Brown was on top of the list of spenders after incurring $24,677 in travel expenses with over $4000 in per diems. Health minister Nandi Glassie came in second with $17,050 in travel expenses and $3383 in per diems, followed by prime minister Henry Puna (over $15,600 and nearly $9500 in per diems), deputy prime minister Teariki Heather ($11,906 and $526), and former cabinet minister Teina Bishop ($9575 and $4689).
Matavera MP Kiriau Turepu, who was sworn in as Agriculture minister last July, incurred $393 in travel expenses. On the Opposition side, Democratic Party leader Wilkie Rasmussen claimed $8260 for travel, followed by Rakahanga MP Taunga Toka ($5566), and Mitiaro MP Tangata Vavia ($1591).