‘Slush fund’ days are over
Russell Wangersky says if we needed another object lesson about the ethics of legislators and unaudited funds, look no further than P.E.I.’s backbench budgets.
As if we needed another object lesson about the ethics of legislators and unfettered, unaudited funds…
Last week, The Guardian began running a series of pieces on what was quickly labelled a slush fund: an operating grant given to government and opposition backbenchers that let the backbenchers have access to a couple of hundred dollars or so a month to do things like buy tickets to community dinners or fundraisers.
It also allowed, apparently, a former opposition chief of staff to be paid with over $18,000 of taxpayers’ money long after he left his job.
Overall, the transgressions outlined so far have not involved huge amounts of money, and that’s resulted in a little pushback against the newspaper for even looking at the funds.
What the spending has involved, though, is yet another example of the problems of legislators voting themselves hidden cash.
The spending is exempt from P.E.I.’s freedom of information legislation, and few politicians have been willing to say much about how it’s used and what, if any, rules apply. Sound familiar? Well, if you’ve been paying attention to legislative news in the Atlantic provinces over the past few years, it should. Newfoundland and Labrador readers will certainly remember the constituency allowance scandal, where taxpayers’ money was divvied up through a government committee and used by members of the House of Assembly in much the same way. It was also exempted from Newfoundland’s access legislation, as well as being exempt from being audited by the province’s auditor general.
By the time the whole scandal had blown up, criminal charges ended up being laid. The scandal led to new legislation and a provincial inquiry to ensure politicians couldn’t dip into public funds to help grease constituents’ causes in the legislators’ own districts.
In Nova Scotia, 2010-11 brought a similar MLA expense scandal, where four members or former members of the Legislative Assembly were convicted for their expense account fiddling. There, the province’s auditor general, watching the unfolding scandal in Newfoundland, took it upon himself to examine similar claims in Nova Scotia.
“I thought if I asked, I’d be refused,” auditor general Jacques Lapointe said in a CBC story. “So I just informed them I was doing it.”
He flagged a series of expenses — from the purchase of bigscreen televisions to the diversion of funds, and the Mounties came calling. Here’s Lapointe again, talking about the internal government committee that reviewed constituency expenses in Nova Scotia: “They were actually fostering improper spending.… They were enabling it, promoting it. And they tempted people to get things. They created a culture.”
There have been expense scandals in Alberta and Saskatchewan, and the list goes on — the Senate is still dealing with how its august members have dipped their way into even more funds than the spectacular returns they legitimately receive.
Legislators like to claim that they shouldn’t be subject to audits. They claim that having to justify their spending to an auditor who, in the end, reports to the legislature means the parliamentarians’ privileges have been breached.
That’s all well and good — until people started making slush funds for themselves. If you spend government money, you should have to account for every dime. Doing otherwise, as has become obvious almost everywhere, only encourages more sleight of hand.
The slush fund days are over, no matter how small the monetary amounts are.
Olive Crane, former leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of P.E.I., is flanked by MLAs James Aylward, left, and Hal Perry, as she announces her resignation as leader.