Damage lies in perceptions
The parallel between the MLA spending controversy and Climategate is not obvious, but try this. Nova Scotia MLAs and the scientists involved in the UN’s reports on climate change have failed the public in similar ways by providing too easy opportunity for the harshest critics to discredit these entire enterprises.
In the overall scheme, abuse of expense entitlements, as Finance Minister Graham Steele points out, amounts to a drop in the bucket. Similarly, the alleged misdeeds of climate scientists at East Anglia University, whose emails were leaked in November, and the goofs uncovered in the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, do not, as the skeptics and deniers claim, unhinge the case for human-driven global warming.
However, careless indulgence, amounting to arrogant negligence in both cases, has resulted in open season on politics and politicians in the first instance, and on climate science and scientists in the second.
The damage could be severe. In the political realm, the view that politicians are parasites who do nothing useful has migrated, for the time being at least, from the fringe of opinion into the mainstream because so many Nova Scotians are outraged by what they interpret as politicians exploiting loose rules they wrote for their own advantage. On climate, the fusillade against the climate science consensus that’s been raging since November has added to public confusion on the issue and thus weakened pressure for urgent government action.
We’re starting to hear the argument now that MLAs have been pilloried enough on expense spending, out of all proportion to the actual misdeeds, and that it’s time to ease up for the sake of politics itself. Nova Scotians seem not to be in that mood, however, and a steady drizzle of expense-related stories, with more to come, makes it hard for agitated taxpayers to calm down.
Besides, the failure of MLAs to fix their slushy system when its deficiencies were known suggests that the shrewd course is not to lift the boot from their collective throats until this is well and truly fixed.
They had their chance and didn’t act, and now this is the price they pay. The public’s price is high as well, not in dollars but in the further erosion of faith in politics as a public good and in respect for those who take up the trade. The judgment is unjust and corrosive but there it is.
MLAs need offices, and offices need equipment and furnishings. MLAs probably need laptops and cameras too. The auditor general labelled big flat-screen TVs an excessive office expense but many a waiting room has a TV and some of them are big flat-screens, so you see where they got the idea.
Failing to anticipate damaging perceptions, not just to themselves but to the public interest their activities are meant to serve, failing to act with the assumption that every detail might someday become public knowledge, these are the offences for which politicians and climate scientists must now atone. The climb back won’t be easy.