Premier’s de­fence fails to ad­dress glar­ing prob­lems

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - EDITORIAL -

Premier Wade MacLauch­lan glossed over sev­eral key points last week dur­ing his spir­ited and lengthy de­fence of monthly pay­ments to govern­ment back­benchers — pay­ments re­lated to their work as MLAs. He vig­or­ously de­fended the $300 monthly al­lot­ment paid to pri­vate mem­bers on the govern­ment side of the leg­is­la­ture, de­scrib­ing them as “le­git­i­mate re­im­burse­ments.”

Af­ter meet­ing with his cau­cus Fri­day, the premier gave an in­ter­view to dis­cuss those back­bench ex­penses, ob­vi­ously feel­ing con­fi­dent there was noth­ing im­proper done by Lib­eral mem­bers.

It’s likely the premier grilled his cau­cus about any pos­si­ble skele­tons and feel­ing rea­son­ably re­as­sured, de­clared the pay­ments le­git­i­mate.

The premier ex­pressed his hope that Is­lan­ders rec­og­nize th­ese pay­ments as le­git­i­mate re­im­burse­ments for ex­penses. Well, Mr. Premier, un­til sev­eral weeks ago, there was al­most no knowl­edge in the pub­lic arena th­ese monthly pay­ments even ex­isted.

It was a for­mer Lib­eral cab­i­net heavy­weight who said the ex­penses were jok­ingly re­ferred to as a “slush fund.” The term makes the premier cringe but that is a per­cep­tion among mem­bers of the pub­lic.

Nat­u­rally, tax­pay­ers are scratch­ing their heads about this se­cre­tive bud­get item — amount­ing to over $200,000 a year.

That’s be­cause it is not cur­rently dis­closed to the pub­lic and is ex­empt from re­lease un­der the Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion and Pro­tec­tion of Pri­vacy Act.

Those pay­ments are made with­out the re­quire­ment of re­ceipts. An MLA need only de­clare in the broad­est of terms the ex­penses were in­curred for travel, meals or other work ex­penses and the bill is paid.

No one else gets away with this kind of loose ac­count­ing. MLAs are sup­posed to lead by ex­am­ple and this is go­ing in the op­po­site di­rec­tion.

Premier MacLauch­lan has to tighten up the rules on this fund. MLAs must pro­vide re­ceipts and in in­stances where none are is­sued, he or she must de­tail the ex­penses — i.e. cost of a ticket or a do­na­tion made to a lo­cal fundraiser.

There was an egre­gious case where the Op­po­si­tion ex­pense fund was raided by sev­eral party of­fi­cials to make pay­ments to a for­mer chief of staff. Most cau­cus mem­bers were un­aware of the pay­ments and sud­denly the PC cau­cus of­fice was left with a bare cup­board.

So, not only is there the po­ten­tial for abuse be­cause of weak ac­count­ing pro­to­cols, it has ac­tu­ally hap­pened. Maybe not on the govern­ment side, but the premier just can’t say his team didn’t mess up so all is well.

De­tails about the fund were so alarm­ing that Au­di­tor Gen­eral Jane Ma­cAdam says she is con­sid­er­ing in­ves­ti­gat­ing. It seems the premier, who should be en­cour­ag­ing an au­dit for the sake of trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity, is try­ing to de­ter the au­di­tor gen­eral by de­fend­ing th­ese ex­tra pay­ments. The premier has even sug­gested the au­di­tor gen­eral may not have the le­gal right to in­ves­ti­gate the monthly fund.

All MLAs should take a les­son from Green Party Leader Peter Be­van-Baker who is vol­un­tar­ily post­ing all ex­penses from his of­fice, in­clud­ing hos­pi­tal­ity, do­na­tions and of­fice sup­plies.

It’s tax­pay­ers’ money and they have ev­ery right to see how it is spent. Ob­vi­ously, in most cases, the claims are le­git­i­mate.

But that should be up to Is­lan­ders to de­cide. The ex­penses should be open for scru­tiny but all we have from the premier is that his side didn’t screw up.

The premier is de­fer­ring the mat­ter to the Stand­ing Com­mit­tee on Leg­isla­tive Man­age­ment, which over­sees the work of the leg­isla­tive as­sem­bly.

The com­mit­tee will dis­cuss the is­sue at an up­com­ing meet­ing and de­cide whether MLA ex­penses should be dis­closed to the pub­lic.

The premier has re­quested the com­mit­tee to fol­low suit on full dis­clo­sure, which now al­ready ap­plies to cab­i­net min­is­ters and se­nior govern­ment of­fi­cials.

Lib­er­als hold a ma­jor­ity on the com­mit­tee so the re­sult should be a fore­gone con­clu­sion. But so far, this has not hap­pened.

The premier could also sim­ply or­der his back­bench MLAs to post ex­penses on­line — much like Mr. Be­van-Baker has al­ready done — which would then force all MLAs to fol­low suit. But that hasn’t hap­pened ei­ther.

Premier MacLauch­lan’s po­si­tion on this mat­ter is sur­pris­ing and dis­ap­point­ing.

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