Begrudging Halifax media abet NDP chicanery – II

From the provincial (read: Halifax) media’s coverage of the latest trumped-up MLA expense scandal [detailed here], you almost get the impression reporters and editorialists think MLAs from far flung rural constituencies are a luxury Nova Scotia cannot afford.

Take the Chronicle-Herald’s overwrought assessment of the housing allotment for MLAs who live outside Halifax. The editorial ridicules the idea that any employer would provide “a $1,500 monthly housing allowance to lease a second residence near our workplace but only 40 kilometres from our home.”

I agree with Tory leader Jamie Baillie’s view that the 40-kilometre threshold dates from the “horse and buggy age,” and should be updated. But for all the Herald’s breast-beating, the problem seems to be hypothetical. The number of MLAs that close to Province House who claim the allowance is either zero, or close to zero. The CBC treated us to colourful clips from several nearby MLAs who have never claimed the allowance—Rev. Gary Burrill cited his need to “talk to my own dog every morning”—but I don’t recall hearing anyone who actually does maintain two abodes that close together. Who would want to?

So, yes, let’s concede that the threshold ought to be lengthened to, say, 80 kilometres. (I frequently drive 70 kilometres from Kempt Head to Sydney for work, and that feels like about the limit to me.) I doubt it will save much, but it’s a reasonable standard. Surely we don’t want MLAs regularly driving to Truro or Bridgewater after long days ending late at night, which is common for our legislators.

The Herald grudgingly concedes a need for “short-term housing for members who truly live too far away to commute,” as if this were a rare condition in a province that spans 750 kilometres from Bay St. Lawrence to Pubnico. Even then, says the outraged editorialist:

It should apply when the House is sitting and for a reasonable number of off-session days. MLAs don’t need Halifax housing year-round; indeed, those who are too rooted in the capital risk losing their allowance.

OK, let’s think this through. Over the last three full years, the legislature sat for an average of just over 68 days a year. Add anther 32 days (a figure I pulled out of thin air) for committee meetings, caucus sessions, legislative business, and various representations on behalf of constituents. It’s reasonable for a distant MLA to sleep 100 nights a year in Halifax. Will 100 nights in a hotel be cheaper than a $1500 apartment? Here, courtesy of, are the rack rates for the 15 hotels closest to Province House:

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The average works out to $169 per night. Let’s assume the province could negotiate 15 percent off the rack rate, and the selected hotels could always provide the needed rooms. Add 7% GST (because the province would recoup its 8% portion of the HST), and the total comes to $15,364 for 100 nights, as opposed to a maximum of $18,000 for the rented apartment. By my count, with an 80-kilometre cutoff, about 27 MLAs would qualify for the rental subsidy. This would yield a total difference of $71,559 a year in a province that spends $9,500,000,000.

There’s lots of room to quibble with my figures. Maybe the province could negotiate a much bigger discount. Maybe there’s a Motel 6 in Enfield or Cole Harbour. But realistically, the difference between the two approaches is small, and I can see a lot of advantages in giving faraway MLAs a stable place to lay their heads in Halifax.

Is $70,000 a year really worth all this sanctimonious bloviating? No it’s not.

So what’s really happening here?

What’s happening is that citizens, reporters, and editorialists have fallen into the lazy belief that politicians are unscrupulous cheats, motivated solely by an inclination to rip off fellow citizens. That this false caricature has overtaken our concept of public service is a much bigger problem than whether Michel Samson spends 161 nights or 183 nights in Arichat.