Expenses story keeps generating
It’s coming up on two weeks now since the provincial auditor general issued his report on questionable MLA expenses and Nova Scotians are still in a lather about it. Witness the further sampling of letters at the bottom of this page, and they’re still coming in.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is about this story that has so ticked off the public. There seems to be a combination of factors at work.
There are the egregious examples of abuse, such as the emergency power generators; examples of casual extravagance such as the $13,000 for custom-made office furniture; purported mistakes that strain belief, such patio furniture and 64 instances of duplicate payments; purchases that seem to say it’s OK to pluck the priciest item in the store, when something cheaper would do fine, because it’s on the public tab.
No doubt timing is an aggravating factor, the revelations coming as the province struggles out of recession or near-recession, when Nova Scotians are feeling uneasy about their own financial security. In addition there are the annoying attempts by individual MLAs to blame their abuse of the public purse on the absence of rules, as though trust and individual respect for the taxpayer’s dime don’t enter into it.
Finally there’s the failure over several years – at least five, perhaps closer to 10 – to tighten up an increasingly porous system that any MLA should have understood was ripe for gouging. Not even the expense scandals in Newfoundland and Britain, which dwarf anything we know to have occurred over this period in Nova Scotia, could move MLAs to clean up their mess before it smeared them all and brought the vocation of politics into further disrepute.
How did it happen? Tim Olive, who as a Dartmouth area MLA served briefly in the John Hamm Tory government as natural resources minister, has offered a remarkably candid explanation of why the legislature’s all-party Internal Economy Board opened the spigots on constituency expenses. “ This was because the salary provided at the time was not adequate, and sat near the bottom of the list of similar MLA compensation across the country,” Olive wrote in a piece published Saturday in The Chronicle Herald. Later, as he points out, salaries were significantly improved (an MLA earned a taxable annual salary of $86,619 as of Jan. 1, 2009) but the IEB system was not reformed.
MLAs, in other words, gave themselves effective raises though the back door when they dared not do it through the front, but then kept all that when their salaries were sharply raised. We are witnessing the fruits of a collective failure across parties and across changing legislatures.