Greedy MPs demand more gravy

30 March 2014 - 02:04
By Thabo Mokone
HEADWINDS: The national flag bearer has incurred R15-billion in losses over the past 10 years and has had five CEOs in the past five years as it battles to turn its finances around
Image: Business Times HEADWINDS: The national flag bearer has incurred R15-billion in losses over the past 10 years and has had five CEOs in the past five years as it battles to turn its finances around

South Africa's MPs have pushed through a massive travel benefit to ensure they get to lap up the parliamentary gravy for at least 10 years after they retire.

According to the proposal, MPs who retire will be able to get up to 24 free flights a year for 10 years - at taxpayers' expense.

Critics have blasted the scheme, saying it makes parliament little more than a glorified gravy plane. The perks also include free flights for spouses.

This latest proposal flies in the face of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan's repeated calls for the restrained use of public money, including less travelling by public officials, and a litany of extreme examples of wasteful public expenditure such as Nkandlagate.

The benefit will apply to parliamentarians who do not make it back to the legislature after May's election, including disgraced former communications minister Dina Pule, who this week withdrew from the ANC's parliamentary list after a public outcry.

In terms of the new post-retirement travel benefit for MPs, adopted by parliament's oversight authority a fortnight ago, former MPs and their spouses will get between eight and 24 free flights a year over the next decade.

The authority recommends that retired MPs and their spouses be given free flights at taxpayers' expense based on the number of years they served in parliament.

In terms of the proposal, an MP would qualify for eight economy-class tickets a year for 10 years after serving one term, 16 such flights a year for 10 years after serving two terms, and 24 business-class tickets a year for 10 years after serving three terms in parliament.

Parliament's oversight authority also wants the retirement travel benefit extended to all 430 members of the nine provincial legislatures.

The oversight authority is the highest policymaking body for parliamentarians and comprises senior MPs, including speaker Max Sisulu, National Council of Provinces chairman Mninwa Mahlangu, ANC chief whip Stone Sizani and Democratic Alliance chief whip Watty Watson.

A Sunday Times calculation estimates that parliament would fork out R10,6-million a year or R106-million over 10 years if the benefit was extended to all 454 MPs and 430 members of provincial legislatures if they served at least one term.

Parliament's travel plans could still be halted if Gordhan decides against it because of the huge costs.

The proposal is contained in parliament's oversight authority's annual report for 2013, tabled recently.

It was made following a two-year review of parliament's travel facilities policy.

DA deputy chief whip Sandy Kalyan, who served on the task team that reviewed the travel policy, said the idea was to "level the playing field" between the benefits granted to former MPs and those given to former ministers and deputy ministers.

"Currently, former ministers and former deputy ministers are entitled to 78 single tickets per year and former MPs receive four tickets per year.

"We believed it to represent a disparity," said Kalyan.

Sisulu has now been instructed by parliament's oversight authority to discuss the implementation of this proposal with Gordhan and Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe in his capacity as leader of government business in parliament.

Parliament, which last year had a budget of more than R224-million to provide travel and other facilities to MPs, asked auditing firm KPMG to conduct an estimate of the costs. Spokesman Luzuko Jacobs has declined to provide the figure.

Gordhan's spokesman, Jabulani Sikhakhane, said the MPs had not yet taken their request to the Treasury.

"The ministry of finance has not been approached on this matter, but the financial implications of the proposal would have to be considered in the context of a constrained fiscal environment," said Sikhakhane.

An ANC MP and another one from the Congress of the People (COPE), who each requested to remain anonymous, said parliamentarians were entitled to free air travel in their retirement.

They dismissed suggestions that the benefit was an extended gravy plane, saying it allowed retired MPs to continue their work as community activists.

"People don't understand parliament and the work it does and the value people add.

"If you value parliamentary work, you will value the contribution that every member can make. But if you want to be dismissive of parliament, you will definitely see it as a problem," said the ANC MP.

The COPE MP said: "I know you guys in the media don't think so, but I definitely don't think it's unfair."

But the DA's Dianne Kohler Barnard expressed shock at the proposal.

"This is now ensuring that the length of the feeding trough is extended for another decade. Is there no end to the amount of money that the ANC people will wring out of taxpayers?"

She was adamant that retired MPs should not be entitled to such a perk.

"This is a massive expenditure on the part of the taxpayer.

"It's as though they [the government] think the taxpayer's pocket is infinitely deep and they will go on and on digging out the money."

The proposed retirement travel benefit would be an addition to existing perks enjoyed by serving MPs.

Each serving MP is entitled to 86 return domestic flights a year.

Their children who are still studying can also claim travel vouchers to fly between home and their place of study during holidays.

When travelling overseas on study tours, MPs fly business class.

Earlier this month, parliament also approved a "generous" leave policy for MPs.

It has granted 11 categories of leave for MPs, including "religious leave", five days leave to attend traditional initiation schools, leave for court appearances and leave to attend to private business activities.

Several years ago, a significant number of ANC MPs faced criminal charges after being implicated in a travel-voucher scam that involved the abuse of their travel privileges from parliament.

Some had used parliamentary travel vouchers to go on overseas holiday trips with their family members. - Additional reporting by Prega Govender