Ex­pense blow-up claims a ca­su­alty

Cape Breton Post - - COMMENT -

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.

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