Expense blow-up claims a casualty
The MLA expenses brouhaha – more than a titillation, less than a full-blown scandal – claimed its first and likely only casualty Tuesday with the resignation of Yarmouth Tory MLA and former cabinet minister Richard Hurlburt. While Hurlburt drew the most vitriolic reaction among the named current and former MLAs whose expense claims have been flagged by the auditor general, the resignation comes as a surprise.
It will be interesting to hear Hurlburt’s fuller take, if we ever do, on why he thought it necessary to take this step “with deep regret and sorrow.” Does he feel he was hounded out of office or unjustly treated by the news media and the unwashed public who unleashed a torrent of angry comment over the revelation that he had expensed his purchase of an $8,000 generator installed at his home?
This wasn’t the largest purchase questioned in the auditor general’s report last week but it’s the one that seized public attention as egregiously self-serving. Then Hurlburt made matters worse, first by denying he’d done anything wrong and claiming that he’d purchased the generator for community use, then backpedalling and agreeing to reimburse the provincial treasury.
But there was more. When the list of names was finally released Monday at the request of Premier Darrell Dexter, Hurlburt was there again for a 40-inch LCD TV bought and installed at his constituency office (total cost $3,078). The list also included Ron Chisholm (PC–GuysboroughSheet Harbour), who’d chosen not to disclose voluntarily that he was the MLA who’d made what the auditor general called an “inappropriate” claim for $1,274 in Internet service and the “excessive” purchase of a $750 GPS unit. Lack of forthrightness, and political judgment, by the two MLAs resulted in unnecessary embarrassment to their party and for interim Leader Karen Casey in the wake of an upbeat Tory annual general meeting on the weekend that was all about rebuilding and moving forward.
As Finance Minister Graham Steele noted this week, the expenses story is small potatoes in the big picture — a mere $28,000 specifically identified by the auditor general in questionable expenses by 15 MLAs over three years, though this doesn’t account for various loose and lucrative allowances that are automatically paid out.
The small cost of such practices relative to something bigger in government – the $525 million budget deficit, for example – doesn’t tell us anything except that expense shenanigans aren’t bankrupting the province. The argument can be made, however, that disrespect for the taxpayer’s dime on a personal scale helps explain why the province has been so poorly managed.
In the result, it’s for the best that we’re having this blow-up and that it has led to a resignation. People are fed up with this stuff, which should have been fixed years ago, and the fallout will help ensure that it’s done right at last. (Let the refrain be: “Remember poor Dick Hurlburt!”)
It will be a little while before we see the details, but prompt, itemized Internet disclosure should be a central feature of the reform.