Sunday, February 21, 2010

Putting the Lid Back on Nova Scotia's Cookie Jar

(This posting is the 600th Posting on this Blog Site - Many thanks for all your reader comments and support...keep reading!)

What do these things have in common: a generator, a pink iPod Nano, a Memphis loveseat, an electric fireplace and a 50” HDTV? They were all purchased by Nova Scotia taxpayers for MLA’s so as to aid their journey through the difficult and often dangerous world of Provincial politics. In all, MLA’s claimed some $699,023 for items such as these between 2006 and 2009 in Nova Scotia – some $282,000 for technology devices alone.

You may wonder what they are doing with these items. The generator may be useful in an MLA’s search for power, the TV for catching the ego whenever it appears front of camera, the fireplace may be a substitute for the warm glow of success while the loveseat simply provides opportunities for advancement. Whatever the rationale for these taxpayer paid expenses, the tax payers are livid.

So too is the Premier, Darrell Dexter, who incidentlally managed to get through five computers in three years. Feigning outrage and amazement, the Premier has promised to clean up the expense scandal and bring dignity and trust back into Provincial politics. His own expenses in this three year period amounted to $21,931 – putting him in the middle of the pack for the biggest spenders, soon to be renamed the “biggest losers”.

The local economy will suffer as a result. Some stores must have come to rely on their key MLA customers. Take Len Goucher, former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister. In a three year period he purchased five digital cameras, eleven computers, twelve printers and four video recorders. To spruce up his social life, taxpayers were also charged for the Xbox 360 Dance Revolution video game – I assume he is now very fit and easily able to tango around Dartmouth when the tide is out. These purchases, which total close to $44,000, would pay the wages of a technology shop owner for a year.

In comparison to the expense scandal rocking the House of Commons in the United Kingdom, the MLA’s from Nova Scotia are rank amateurs. Not one of them charged the taxpayer for a second home and kept the profits from the sale of the house, made shortly after it was purchased for them. Nor has anyone ordered a duck shoot, cleaned out a moat or had their castle refurbished. No one has started to charge for their children driving them to the legislature or for their wife opening their mail. These Nova Scotia MLA’s are low grade expense claimers. They could learn a lot from the now despised British MP’s.
Indeed, the Speaker of the British House of Commons had to leave his post – he was forced to take a seat in the Lords – because of his mishandling of the expense scandal. Over half of the members of the House have had to repay expenses and four face criminal charges. Many are leaving politics after years of service, feeling themselves unable to recover from the public hostility towards them.

So far, there has been just one casualty in the Nova Scotia house – MLA for Yarmouth, Richard Hulbert. In addition to buying a top of the line generator, power hungry Hulbert also bought a $2,500 TV and taxpayers were kind enough to also pay $575 for its installation. In all, Hulbert’s three year expense toll was $33,220. His resignation followed. No sign yet of the resignation of others.

Some MLA’s may face more serious challenges. Some of the expenses submitted by some were duplicate expenses – claiming for the same item twice. While human error may account for some of these, there is the possibility that some of these were deliberate. If so, they would amount to an attempt to defraud the people of Nova Scotia. Can’t have that can we, especially when we’re busy Xbox dancing.

Not all MLA’s boarded the gravy train, which has been running continuously for many years. Some, like Bill Estabrooks of the NDP, have charged as little as $2,043 over three years, with Liberal Leo Glavine MLA being just a tad more expensive to run at $3,591. Some do think before they spend other people’s money.

Now the Premier, still feigning indignation after three weeks of the scandal, is wondering how to deal with it. Rather than make matters worse, which is what the Brit’s have done with their half-hearted reforms, he should tighten the rules considerably and provide an annual allowance rather than an item based expense system and specify what can and cant be done with the allowance. He should ensure that all expenses incurred by MLA’s and all gifts received by them are posted online within fourteen working days of a claim being made or a gift being received. He should ensure that MLA’s maintain a register of members interests, indicating what investments they hold and what boards and organizations they belong to. Members who can be shown to have breeched the rules should be suspended from the House until their case is investigated thoroughly to ensure that there has been no criminal wrong doing. He should, in short, adopt a policy of transparency coupled with zero tolerance for abuse.

He also needs to have a quiet word with the Speaker of the House and indicate that this is not a party issue – all parties are tainted by this scandal – but an issue of trust and the credibility of the political class. If confidence in the work of politicians is to be regained, every action taken has to be squeaky clean.

Dan Leger or the Chronicle Herald in Halifax observed recently that “the cookie jar was open for so long that nobody in politics today can remember who pried off the lid”. When we’ve stopped Xbox dancing, put away the loveseat and taken the TV back, it will be time to put the lid back on that cookie jar.

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