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It Doesn’t Grow on Trees

February 12, 2010
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As the only Forserious maven to live east of Montreal…or really anywhere outside of the Greater Toronto Area, I feel compelled to be the roving regional reporter, and not just because it rolls trippingly off the tongue. Today’s instalment takes me to Canada’s Ocean Playground.

Nova Scotia is currently embroiled in its very own MLA “spending scandal.” Let me first start off with the fact that as far as scandals go, this one is on the vanilla end of the spectrum.  While the British MP spending scandal that broke last year had members of parliament fessing up for thousands of pounds worth of moat repairs, the sexiest thing to come out of the Bluenose province to-do was a 40 inch television and a copy of the Xbox 360 sensation Dance, Dance, Revolution.

For those of you without a daily subscription to the Chronicle Herald, here’s the short version:  Last year, Darrell Dexter and the NDP strode into majority government, sweeping the then minority holding Progressive Conservatives into third place.  Government accountability was the name of the game, and one of the first orders of business was to have the Auditor-General conduct an audit of MLA expenses over the past three years.  This was the first time such an audit had been conducted in well over a decade.

The report came out last week on a no names basis, which of course in a province of one million had tounges-a-wagging… who spent $700+ on a replica of the famed ship ‘Hector’?; who bought a $7000 generator?; what on earth did an MLA need with a pink iPod Nano? Some MLAs revealed themselves as purchasers of various items, some didn’t, and then finally Dexter gave the go-ahead for the Auditor-General to release the floodgates so that the naming and shaming could be done with in one fell swoop.

One former Tory cabinet minister and member for Yarmouth, Richard Hurlburt, resigned. Hurlburt had admitted to buying a generator and having it installed in his home, but claimed it was for community groups and search and rescue in the area.  Then, when the report was fully disclosed, it turned out that he had also purchased a 40 inch television on the taxpayer’s dime.  Former PC back bencher Len Goucher bought 11 computers, 12 printers and four video recorders in the span of three years…we’re still not quite sure why.  But those were the more “outrageous” expenses, the others listed by the Auditor-General were more…pedestrian, and certainly lived in the grey area. One member was highlighted for having spent over $10,000 on office furniture, but it was hand-crafted and from a local artisan; others were listed as having bought two or three computers, but that would generally be considered par for the course for a constituency office with a full time staff member or two.

The most oft-repeated phrase heard from members throughout this whole thing was that there were really no guidelines as to what could be expensed and what couldn’t, and furthermore, what would be considered an egregious expense even if it was within the correct parameters.  A quick glance at the expenses shows that this was probably the case.  $2000 for a printer may seem like a lot, but if it’s one of those mega printer-fax-copy-make my coffee jobbies, well then it seems a bit more reasonable.  My reaction to this, however, is “I’m sorry?  Come again?” There are piles of legislative committees sitting around with nothing to do, wouldn’t it make sense to task one of them with coming up with some sort of guidelines for what members should expense and how they should do it?  For over ten years, no one, not one person stopped to say “Man, this MLA expense thing is a real cluster…maybe we should set out some guidelines so that we might become more accountable.  It is, after all, taxpayer money.” It is outright shameful.  MLAs have no one to blame but themselves for the confusion surrounding their spending abilities.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge my MLA a desk for his office, or a chair to sit on, these are necessary parts of the job, but for a citizenry that has so consistently been told to buckle down for the tough times, this complete lack of respect for public funds is a real kick in the teeth. MLAs have admitted to mistakenly submitting receipts twice, or submitting receipts incorrectly.  For that, there is absolutely no excuse.  When Canadians file their taxes every year, CRA expects them to have fully itemized lists of expenditures that they plan to write off and the receipts that go with them.  It’s simple, and if it’s what our government expects from us, the least that it can do is set an example.

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