NDP needs a sharper game

Cape Breton Post - - COMMENT -

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.

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