Expense abuse easily solved
I n terms of the money involved and risk to the public, the weightiest theme in this week’s report from Nova Scotia’s auditor general is the lackadaisical provincial oversight of public-private school partnerships. To select just one issue from this section, Jacques Lapointe and his auditors estimate the private school building owners who’ve contracted cleaning and maintenance services from school boards would stand to profit by $52 million over 20 years because the boards are paid a lot less for providing the services than the province is paying the owners through lease arrangements to clean and maintain the buildings.
But this stuff is complicated and boring, even in summary, and few taxpayers want to wade through the Department of Education’s disagreement with the auditor general’s interpretation of P3 leases.
No, what we want to know is which MLA bought that $738 espresso coffee maker (FutureShop’s best, according to its website, is a $449.99 cheapo) and how did Glace Bay Liberal MLA Dave Wilson manage to bunch up the receipt for his $400 patio set with his expense claim submission? Was there chewed gum in his pocket, and did he expense that too?
Will our vacationing premier, Darrell Dexter, post to Flickr some of those stunning photos he must be snapping with that $2,150 digital camera? And is it preferred etiquette for those taking up the open invitation to descend on the home of Yarmouth Tory MLA Richard Hurlburt during a power outage, pets and kids in tow, to bring salad or a can of diesel fuel to feed that $7,995 generator?
These are the pressing questions Nova Scotians want to talk about. Does that make us frivolous, cynical jokesters? Well, of course, but there’s more to it.
Ethical behaviour does not consist in getting away with what you can under the rules. It’s doing the right thing in the absence of rules. This is one reason that stories such as Lapointe’s revelations on excessive MLA expense claims grab public attention and why the explanation that the rules are lax and imprecise is so inadequate.
Northside Tory MLA Cecil Clarke, who was responsible for overseeing the MLA expense system when he was Speaker of the House, noted this week that the auditor general found nothing illegal or fraudulent, and Clarke says he knows of no MLA who “ knowingly is trying to bilk Nova Scotians out of their tax dollars.” Clarke confuses rules and ethics, as is common. On the basis of what’s been revealed, his claim that no one’s trying to bilk Nova Scotians just doesn’t stand up.
The new government has pressed some reforms to the expense system, hoping to look proactive but more likely acting in anticipation of the report we now have. There will be more rules, which is fine, but there’s a simple solution that would largely fix the thing. Post itemized, individual expenses on the Internet as soon as they’re paid – every penny. Bada boom bada bing! Problem solved.