NDP needs a sharper game
The Nova Scotia NDP and Premier Darrell Dexter will be harshly attacked over the campaign financing screw-up unveiled Thursday by the province’s chief electoral officer, Christine McCulloch. At least some of this opprobrium will be deserved. After all, McCulloch did determine that the malfeasance uncovered in her investigation warranted the maximum fine available to her, $10,000, and now police are asked to look at the role of the labour organizations involved in the illegal contributions that triggered this mess.
The focus on integrity and legality misses an important point about the NDP’s recent performance, however. The story about party financing, and the NDP’s part in the MLA expense scandal as well, is not about corruption and is only partly about ethics; more important, it is about competence and focus. This outfit, despite having had a decade to prepare for its turn at government, just hasn’t been sharp or on top of its game.
The party, as McCulloch points out in her report, knew or ought to have known about a week before the June 9 election that $45,000, thinly represented as a series of $5,000 contributions from individual unions, had in fact come from one source in violation of the legal limit then in place. Additionally, this occurred as the party was under heavy fire, especially from the desperate Tories, for being in the pocket of labour. If questionable legality didn’t set off alarm bells for the NDP, political optics should have; predictably, the opposition parties had a field day when the contributions story broke.
Now it turns out that initial acceptance of the money would likely have been forgiven if the party had returned the funds promptly in early June as Dexter had publicly instructed. Party secretary Ed Wark fell on his sword Thursday for trying to play cute with the refunds but we’re left to wonder about the competence and professionalism within the organization and the state of internal communications. Do people ask enough questions?
As for the expense scandal, consider this. In November 2005, Graham Steele, now the finance minister but then an opposition MLA, made headlines by calling for expense reform. He laid out in withering detail the faults in what he called “a model of secrecy and complexity,” leading to a “system of out-of-control expense allowances.” He proposed a set of specific reform measures based on openness and documentation: “No receipts, no money.”
The NDP, while it could have done more to force the issue at the time, was not in a position to fix things. But the NDP caucus could have heeded the warnings from this future kingpin in the government and exercised some self-discipline, anticipating its opportunity to govern. Yet the period examined by the auditor general, where he found several NDP MLAs including Dexter among those with inappropriate or excessive expenses, came after Steele’s public criticism of the expense system.
For a party that’s waited so long for its chance, the NDP has been playing a disappointingly lackadaisical game.