Ex­penses story keeps gen­er­at­ing

Cape Breton Post - - COMMENT -

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.

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