Six things the NDP did wrong — part 1

Six things the NDP did wrong — Part 1

1. The Expense Scandal

In the election of 2009, Nova Scotia voters did what the NDP had been asking them to do for decades: They ditched the same-old, same-old parties, and handed the keys to an entirely new crowd. There was an air of expectation, if not euphoria, as citizens waited to see what this party of policy wonks would do to shake Nova Scotia out of its malaise.

What they got for the first six months was… nothing. It had been obvious for at least a year that Dexter was odds-on favorite to become premier, yet the fact of governing seemed to come as a surprise for which the party was completely unready. Summer came and went, and the fall brought no new legislation, no new programs, no new ideas.

Darrell DexterInto this six-month vacuum of policy, programs, and news came the MLAs expense scandal, a slew of politicians filching and fudging in a manner not seen since the Buchanan administration.

From the new government’s perspective, the scandal didn’t exactly come out of the blue. The province’s showboat Auditor General had been working on it for months, and he gave the government an advance copy. Yet when it broke, the premier who had shown such skill earning the trust of a skeptical electorate, reacted like an isolated corporate executive shocked to discover the rough and tumble of public life.

On a southern golfing vacation, Dexter refused to return and face angry voters. In his absence, they grew angrier. When Dexter finally deigned to return, he reacted with petulent, Dingwall-like faith in his entitlement to his entitlements.

In the space of a few days, the public’s hope for a new style of democracy was crushed—and it has never recovered. In the eyes of thousands of people who voted NDP for the first or second times in their lives, Dexter’s boys had shown themselves to be no different from anyone else.

This astonishing failure of leadership coloured everything that followed.

2. Central Command and Control

If the new government was slow to innovate in matters of policy and programs, it was quick to impose a new political order. In previous administrations, cabinet ministers had been free to choose their own executive assistants, those necessary operatives who advise on the politically touchy matters that cross any minister’s desk.

In the Dexter government, the premier’s office not only chose executive assistants, but moved them from department to department and minister to minister with a frequency that had never been seen. These were not so much political aides to ministers as the eyes and ears of the premier and the half dozen men—they were almost all men—who ran “The Centre,” or “One Gov.,” as the civil service quickly learned to call the premier’s office at One Government Place.

The EAs swung big bats. Very little happened without their approval and that of Dan O’Conner, Matt Hebb, and Paul Black, their cautious, slow-moving, political overseers at One Gov.

This led to a second astonishing feature of the Dexter Government: the frequency with which its top-down, command-and-control style of issues management was compared to that of Canada’s right-wing federal government under Stephen Harper. Amazing.

3. The Politicization of Communications Nova Scotia

For today’s families,” the NDP slogan in the 2009 election, was one of those empty vessels into which many kinds of voters could pour whatever values they held dear. Traditional families, working couples, single-parent families, same-sex couples, stay-at-home dads, families with one parent in Fort McMurray—they could all see themselves in the phrase, “today’s families.” The slogan was a way to signal support to any of those groups without arousing the ire of the others.

So fond “of today’s families” were the wise men of the premier’s office, they frog-marched the slogan over to Communications Nova Scotia (CNS) as soon as the election was over, and ordered its continual repetition. In the years since, the phrase has appeared in no fewer than 125 CNS news releases.

This might seem a small thing, but it’s not. For at least two decades, through Liberal and Tory administrations, Communications Nova Scotia had protected its independence as a source of factual information about government activities and policies, not a mouthpiece for the party in power.

The Dexter administration’s appropriation of the government information agency was not simply heavy-handed, it was incompetently executed. CNS announcements took on a forced cheeriness in which happy citizens celebrated their steadfast march the New Jerusalem.

Thus, a news release announcing the award of a contract to replace an important bridge did not begin with the name of the successful bidder, the amount of the contract, and the length of time until the work would be completed. No, it began like this:

Strolling, riding, biking or hiking Cape Bretoners and visitors alike will soon enjoy a new bridge on Keltic Drive in Sydney River.

This turns out to be a template imposed by apparatchiks from the premier’s office.

[Some subset of] Nova Scotians will [experience something good] because of [something the Dexter government has done].

Browse through the CNS archives and you’ll find dozens of examples. It’s not good communications. It’s clumsy propaganda of the kind one expects from isolated functionaries who’ve lost perspective on their woodenness of partisan prose. It reinforces the public impression that these guys differ little from the Tweedledees and Tweedledums who preceded them.

[In part 2, I’ll tackle the government’s estrangement from rural voters, its lamentable track record in big negotiations, and its failure to clean up the mess at Community Services. Then six important things the NDP did right. I welcome comments on these election posts, and will publish a sample of the best I receive. Email:]

How phoney scandals poison democracy

Moments after Auditor General Jacques Lapointe’s decision confirming Richmond MLA Michel Samson’s eligibility for an outside member’s housing allowance, but denying his current claim on the slenderest technicality, NDP House Leader Frank Corbett rushed out a news release.

In it, he falsely stated that Lapointe had found “Samson lives in both Halifax and Arichat and as a result his residency cannot be the basis of providing a housing allowance to Samson.” [Contrarian’s emphasis]

There are many things not to like in Lapointe’s decision, among them, the time and ink he wasted dreaming up residency tests not found in any legislation governing MLAs’ allowances. Nevertheless, he eventually acknowledged that the only test with legal weight confirms Samson’s entitlement to the Outside Member’s Allowance.

It’s true that along the way to this self-evident conclusion, Lapointe mused that Samson “lives in both locations.” Yes, and so do the 29 other MLAs who claim an outside allowance—17 of them New Democrats. Their jobs require them to live in two places. Conflict Commissioner and retired Supreme Court Justice Merlin Nunn nailed this months ago when Samson referred the matter to him days after a scandal-aspiring CBC reporter floated the bogus issue.

It is very important to understand that we have had, and will have, members elected to our Legislature from rural areas. They are required to work in two areas, their constituency and Halifax, for Legislature and constituency matters. To do so they must leave their homes and area for both short and extended periods of lime. Recognizing this, the House Rules provide for certain reimbursements to offset the extra costs involved.

In the end, Lapointe denied Samson the bona fide expenses his job requires, not because of where he lives (or where his wife lives, in the sexist reasoning of the CBC and the NDP), but because his Halifax abode is a house not an “apartment,” the word used in the regulation. As everyone now acknowledges, the word “apartment” was chosen not out of any preference for dwelling type, but to ensure MLAs only claim reimbursement for rental spaces, not real estate in which they are building ownership.

Frank-Corbett-Maureen MacDonaldEven the hyper-partisan Corbett recognized this when he said the rule, “prevents an elected official from using their housing allowance to pay for mortgages for themselves or their associates.” Then, brazenly, he rejected any plan to clarify the wording, “so that taxpayers are not left paying the mortgage for MLAs or their friends and then have to watch as they profit from the resale of property.”

In an interview with Contrarian last May, Samson categorically denied he has any equity in the Halifax house he rents from a Richmond County associate, insisting the terms are a standard rental arrangement. If Corbett has evidence to the contrary, he hasn’t provided it. He refuses to clarify the rule in a way that would focus on the distinction that matters, between rentals and mortgage payments, while clinging to the meaningless distinction between an apartment and a house, because it conveniently gores a Liberal ox.

In one of her least distinguished moments in the public sphere, Finance Minister Maureen MacDonald, who knows better, parroted the same party line.

Lapointe, Corbett, and MacDonald ought to consider the damage they are doing to public confidence in the democratic process—Lapointe with his querulous nit-picking; Corbett and MacDonald with their poisonous partisanship. Commissioner Nunn recognized the danger straightaway:

To be perfectly clear, yes, these reimbursement claims must be honest and made only when warranted.

However it is vitally important that our elected members of our Legislature are not open to public denouncement on the whim of a media member who, without first pursuing the necessary facts, raises a suspicion which is akin to serious issues in one or more other jurisdictions, knowing it will be scandal and embarrassment to the person involved.

We need the best members we can get and we must not put in their way a fear of baseless scandal and embarrassment brought on by immature and sensational oriented reporting. Our elected members give up a great deal to serve the people of this Province and should not be dishonoured to the public in any way without a sound basis of facts to support the matter or claim being made.

I am not using a “kill the messenger” approach but rather the approach that the “messenger bring the correct message.” Otherwise, over time, we will have fewer capable and desirable people offering to represent the public in a constituency to the detriment and loss of the whole Province.

Corbett’s release got one other crucial point wrong: after an election, he may not be the house leader who makes the final decision on any clarification of MLA expense rules. He may be sitting on an opposition bench, or even a park bench.

We need an auditor general who understands democracy

After months of counting tiny beans, Nova Scotia’s politician-despising, publicity-loving, limelight-hogging Auditor General has grudgingly conceded what everyone knows: MLA Michel Sampson Samson lives in Arichat and fully qualifies for reimbursement of necessary Halifax expenses. [See: news release. Full report (pdf)]

LapointeThen, predictably, Lapointe found a mean-spirited technicality on which he could deny Samson those legitimate expenses. Samson’s Halifax residence doesn’t qualify because it’s a “house” not an “apartment.” What tendentious pettifoggery!

The campaign to deprive this elected MLA of the tools needed to do his job effectively was cooked up by a not very discerning CBC reporter, who couldn’t distinguish legitimate living expenses from a Mike Duffy-style scandal, then seized upon by hyper-partisans in the premier’s office who sought to turn it to their advantage. Caucus-attending Speaker Gordie Gosse and AG Lapointe should have given this nonsense short shrift, as Conflict of Interest Commissioner (and retired Supreme Court Justice) Merlin Nunn did, when Samson brought the issue to him six months ago.

An untold aspect of this story is the rank sexism that pervades the whole affair. The Speaker and the AG judged Samson almost entirely on his wife’s employment and whereabouts. One can scarcely imagine the hellfire that would rain down on anyone who applied that standard to the entitlements of a female NDP member—and rightly so.

Samson’s wife, the lawyer Claudine Bardsley-Samson, works as manager of industrial relations for Irving Shipbuilding in Halifax. There aren’t a lot of positions for someone of her professional stature in Richmond County. The NDP has campaigned ad nauseam on its claim to represent “today’s families,” a group that presumably includes couples, from construction workers to high-end professionals, whose employment opportunities complicate their living arrangements.

samson2The end result is an invidious, sexist, hypocritical assault on an elected MLA that deprives the people of Richmond of their rights as electors—while showing reckless disregard for the reputation of elected men and women. An unelected accountant who has built his career by exploiting public hostility to politicians has hamstrung the elected MLA for Richmond, and if his literal interpretation is applied retroactively, imposed a significant fine on him for doing his job.

Here’s an important distinction. Jacques Lapointe has never faced voters, and never been elected to any position in Nova Scotia. MLA Michel Samson has faced Nova Scotia voters five times, and won each election by a wide margin. When he faces them again this fall, he will trounce his NDP opponent.

Anyone who follows public affairs in a serious way understands that rising public scorn for politicians poses a threat to the commonweal. When legitimate abuses occur, as with those Nova Scotia MLAs who falsely claimed expenses, they need to be exposed, corrected, and where appropriate, punished. But to apply the same rigour to meaningless technical violations is short-sighted and destructive. Mr. Justice Nunn took pains to recognize this reality in his decision; as is his wont, Lapointe ran roughshod over it.

Lapointe’s term expires in 2016. When the legislature convenes after the fall election, it should restore what are now officially acknowledged to be Samson’s legitimate living allowance, and begin planning for a replacement Auditor General with more respect for democracy.

Maybe 79% is the sweet spot for AG Lapointe’s proposals

It’s natural for Auditor General Jacques Lapointe to believe all his recommendations should be implemented, and implemented promptly. Nova Scotia journalists certainly seem to have accepted that view, but is it necessarily so?

In his latest report, and in the three press statements he released today to promote it, M. Lapointe complains that only 41 percent of his 2010 recommendations have been implemented to his satisfaction, and only 71 to 79 percent of the recommendations in his reports from 2007, 2008, and 2009. (He didn’t add the “to his satisfaction” qualifier, but it’s worth noting, since Premier Darrell Dexter complained that Lapointe sometimes refuses to sign off on recommendations that have been largely carried out, but for which a few small details are not yet in place.)

LapointeLong gone are the days when auditors general confined their attention to ensuring columns of figures add up correctly, and accurately reflect cheques drawn and receipts submitted. Nowadays, the Jacques Lapointes of the world concern themselves with “value audits” that go far beyond objective arithmetic, venturing into subjective, sometimes sweeping, judgments about public policy. Given the range and scope of his reviews — Children’s Services one day, Transportation Department mechanical shops the next — M. Lapointe of necessity spends a good deal of time reviewing matters about which he and his staff are far from expert.

That’s not a bad thing. It’s always good to have independent eyes review important policy matters. It’s also good to remember that elected Members of the Legislature hold the ultimate responsibility for policy. Reasonable and responsible people can and do disagree about such matters. Sadly for him, Lapointe’s is not the last word in a parliamentary democracy.

Finally, the ship of state is more ocean liner than jet ski. Course alterations take time. There should be no surprise that implementation rates are higher for reports submitted in 2007 than in 2010.

I’d like to hear more specifics about which matters remain undone, and the extent to which they are unfinished. The government and its bureaucrats may prove to be dragging their feet. It could also be that some Lapointe recommendations work better in press releases than in practice. Maybe 79 percent isn’t such a bad target.

Begrudging Halifax media abet NDP chicanery – I

There’s a lot less wrong with the rules governing housing allowances for MLAs from outside Halifax than reporters who rarely stray beyond the Armdale Rotary would have you believe. And there’s a lot less than saintly devotion to cost control in Speaker Gordie Gosse’s handling of the issue.

samson-250Richmond MLA Michel Samson’s living arrangements are full of the sort of ambiguities that professional couples face in the real world of life and work. He represents a constituency more than 300 kilometres from Halifax. To do his job properly requires him to spend significant amounts of time in both places. His wife, the lawyer Claudine Bardsley-Samson, works as manager of industrial relations for Irving Shipbuilding in Halifax. The couple have a three-and-a-half-year-old daughter who presumably needs to be settled in pre-school or day care.

Unless you believe Claudine should abandon her profession for a life of barefoot pregnancies in an Arichat kitchen, their situation requires some juggling. And the juggling the Samsons settled on was for Michel to spend more nights in Halifax than is typical for an MLA representing a faraway constituency. He retains his house in Arichat, but the family also rented a house in Halifax, with the MLAs’ housing allowance covering about half the rent.

When a CBC reporter, sensing a local version of the Mike Duffy scandal, put a series of aggressive questions to Samson about his living arrangements, the MLA asked the Legislature’s Conflict-of-Interest Commissioner and the House Speaker to review whether his housing expenses conformed to the rules.

The conflict commissioner, retired Supreme Court Justice Merlin Nunn, made short shrift of the reporter’s suspicions. In a letter you can find at the end of this post, he concluded there was nothing improper in Samson’s reimbursement for the Halifax dwelling. Nunn also directed a few pungent remarks at the CBC reporter who raised the issue:

[I]t is vitally important that our elected members are not open to public denouncement on the whim of a media member who, without first pursuing the necessary facts, raises a suspicion which is akin to serious issues in one or more other jurisdictions, knowing it will be scandal and embarrassment to the person involved.

We need the best members we can get and we must not put in their way a fear of baseless scandal and embarrassment brought on by immature and sensational reporting. Our elected members give up a great deal to serve the people of this province and should not be dishonoured to the public without a sound basis of facts to support the matter or claim being made.

Speaker Gosse somehow reached the opposite conclusion. He cut off Samson’s housing compensation. Gosse won’t explain the reasons, and we have only Samson’s report that Gosse counted (or miscounted) the number of nights the MLA slept in the Arichat home he owns and speculated about the living arrangements of the MLA’s wife and daughter, factors Justice Nunn correctly deemed irrelevant.

Gosse-250If this is true, Gosse was making things up as he went along, applying rules that do not exist and flagrantly sexist assumptions about the nature of marital-work tradeoffs.

Why might he do that?

Gosse is a New Democrat who faces a tough re-election fight after his Cape Breton Nova riding was lumped in with traditionally Liberal Cape Breton South. Samson faces a similar problem. His tiny protected Acadian riding of Richmond, which he won five times by margins ranging from 47 to 55 percent, disappeared in the recent redistricting. Richmond County is now combined with paper mill town of Port Hawkesbury, where the NDP has some strength (having spent hundreds of millions to revive the bankrupt mill). A prolonged controversy about whether Samson lives in the riding he represents could conceivably tip the scales.

Samson objected to Gosse’s ruling, purporting to find several errors in Gosse’s review of the facts. The speaker responded by referring the issue to Auditor General Jacques Lapointe.

Sounds fair, right? Until you discover that Gosse had already consulted Lapointe, giving him a perhaps skewed account of the facts, and obtaining his informal concurrence. In short, having found Samson guilty based on rules and tests that do not exist, Gosse had a choice of referring the matter to the Conflict Commissioner (who he knew agreed with Samson) or the AG (who had already publicly agreed with Gosse, and who revels in scolding elected officials for their moral failings, real and exaggerated). He chose Lapointe.

When the MLAs’ expense scandal broke a few months after the NDP took power, Premier Darrell Dexter’s petulant reaction demolished the NDP’s not-like-the-others image. Now, with the days running out on its first term, the NDP has begun pandering to public hostility toward politicians. They’ve made a big show of retroactively confiscating disgraced MLA Trevor Zinck’s pension—a matter that clearly ought to be decided in the courts. Now their caucus-attending speaker is retroactively applying rules that never existed to shame an opposition member who has nothing to be ashamed of. And the media scolds are delighted to pile on.

More to come. And after the jump, Nunn’s letter.

Continue reading Begrudging Halifax media abet NDP chicanery – I

Lapointe saw all that he had recommended, and it was very good

I’ve been trying to figure out why Jacque LaPointe sets my teeth on edge. I’d normally expect to like an aggressive Auditor General, but lately, Lapointe has become too much of a showboat. His demeanor changed after the MLAs’ expense scandal, when he seemed to transmogrify from reasoned second opiner to God’s Gift of Good Governance.

Lapointe’s latest report to the legislature included a summary of how the 481 recommendations he made between 2005 and 2009 have fared:

The overall implementation rate of our performance audit recommendations is inadequate. Only 63% of the recommendations in our 2005 to 2009 reports were implemented…. Government’s failure to implement these recommendations constitutes poor management practices and poor accountability to the House.

Notice the unspoken assumption? One hundred percent is a perfect score; Anything less is “poor management” and “poor accountability.” Apparently, the wisdom of each and every JL recommendation is indisputable.

Auditor General Jacques Lapointe (not exactly as illustrated)

The media and the public share this view. They look upon any Auditor General as invariably right, and always beyond reproach. In fact, Lapointe’s recommendations are just that: recommendations. Talk to any longtime civil servant or candid politician, and you’ll hear examples of AG recommendations that were impractical, ill-considered, or flat-out wrong.

Try explaining this in public. Officials who attempt to will lose the argument. So they suck it up and move on—and perhaps employ a bit of passive aggression in the form of sluggish or incomplete implementation.

Lapointe exemplifies a trend that bothers me throughout government: process run amok. This man loves process, but appears by times indifferent to outcomes.

He gave the Department of Community Services, another hotbed of process lovers, the best score of any department: 85 percent “compliance.” DCS used Lapointe’s recommendations on services to people with disabilities to impose unilateral changes that made life harder and poorer for Nova Scotia’s most disadvantaged citizens. It used his recommendations on income support to claw back benefits, then promoted the changes with a repulsive PR campaign that crowed about eliminating hot tubs and gym memberships for welfare bums. Beautiful process. Crappy outcome.

So here’s an invitation to any politician, civil servant, or departmental stakeholder, current or moved on: send me examples of Lapointe recommendations whose wisdom or outcome you found less than God-like, with details and an emphasis on outcomes, actual or averted. Anonymity guaranteed.

Malcom stands tall

John Malcom doubtless didn’t enjoy having to respond to a scathing Auditor General’s report on his last week as CEO of the Cape Breton District Health Authority. Doing so, however, gave him one last chance to demonstrate the exemplary leadership he displayed in 15 years as head of the authority.

Jacques Lapointe released a harsh report on operational shortcomings at the district and provincial levels that contributed to two outbreaks of C. difficile bacteria—infections that caused five deaths.

“As CEO, the biggest mistake is my mistake,” Malcom told reporters Wednesday, in response to the report. “I under-resourced the infection control department. So I accept that responsibility as mine.”

Of course the time to admit a mistake is when you realize you have made one, but in practice, such admissions are rare. When issued, they tend to ring down the curtain on criticism, when a less forthright response can lead to endless curtain calls. I would be surprised if my friend Greg Boone, the CBDHA’s gifted director of communications, had not encouraged Malcom’s response, but it was the CEO himself who had the stand before the cameras and manfully chow down humble pie.

It’s an open secret among provincial officials and politicians that humble pie is rarely found on Lapointe’s bill of fare. This is an auditor general who enjoys his frequent sashays through the media spotlight. Since the Infection Prevention and Control Nova Scotia and the Public Health Agency of Canada had already carried out and reported on investigations of the Cape Breton outbreak, Lapointe could be accused of piling on, or even shooting fish in a barrel, by instigating a third pass through this well-hoed soil.

As usual, certain details of Lapointe’s report seem overstated, most obviously his complaint that Cape Breton health care workers don’t always wash their hands between patients. This is no doubt true, but it simply restates an intractable problem known to persist at hospitals around the world. For further proof, check the hilarious efforts Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles undertook to get its doctors to wash their hands, as recounted by Freakonomics authors Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt in the New York Times.

I’m going to miss John Malcom. So is Cape Breton.


The strange case of the NDP vs. the AG – ctd.

Graham Steele and I had a further email exchange. I suggested he had not answered the question at the heart of my original query:

Why didn’t you (or, if you wish, why didn’t [Cabinet Clerk Greg] Keefe) simply waive solicitor client privilege in these cases?

Canned MMandarins
Canny Mandarins

I added:

A second question that I didn’t ask, but which still hovers over this: Is this a sign that the NDP government, with its very small cabinet, is falling prey to a classic malady of new governments, especially new governments whose ministers have no experience in government: that of being unduly led by the canny Mandarins?

Steele replies:

The answer is that the issue on this specific audit was supposed to be resolved by the broader discussions on revisions to the Auditor General Act. At the time the AG wrote to the Premier in October, everyone expected amendments to be introduced in the spring sitting.

The answer to the second question is “no.” That’s not a fair characterization of what went on here. I think people want to see some dark conspiracy on this issue. The reality is, as usual, much duller. A process to revise the Auditor General Act was underway, and this was one of the issues on the table; the process took longer than expected; the government was busy with other priorities. We’ll deal with the issue in the fall. Within six months, it will be a non-issue.

The strange case of the NDP vs. the AG

At first blush, Auditor General Jacques Lapointe’s refusal to issue an audit opinion on the province’s two largest business loan funds looks like another in the lengthening string of Dexter Government screw-ups. This is the NDP, for heaven’s sake, perennial champions of openness and accountability, withholding 281 documents and redacting a further 32 on grounds of cabinet confidentiality and solicitor-client privilege, thereby thwarting independent scrutiny of the corporate welfare trough they once scorned.

Solicitor-client privilege protects communications between a lawyer and a client from being disclosed without the permission of the client. It binds the lawyer, not the client. In the case at point, government is the client; it has an unfettered right to waive confidentiality. Contrarian asked Finance Minister Graham Steele why it didn’t simply do so.

steele2-250Steele replied by email: “The key issue is how to allow the auditor general to have access to documents, without thereby opening to disclosure documents which are legitimately confidential…

“This issue, which is known as ‘limited waiver,’ is enshrined in statute in other provinces like Ontario,” Steele wrote. “We have no such provision in our Auditor General Act. Our view is that it is necessary to have a legislative framework in place before privileged documents are handed over to the Auditor General. The auditor general apparently believes the existing legislative framework is sufficient. With respect, we disagree, and we are backed up by the court case and the practice in other provinces.”

Steele cited a December, 2000, Nova Scotia Supreme Court decision, Nova Scotia v. Royal & Sun Alliance, in which the province sued two insurance companies seeking to recover damages paid to abuse victims in residential schools. While carrying out a review of the compensation program, the auditor general of the day was given access to various documents over which the province later tried to claim cabinet or solicitor-client privilege. Partly on grounds of that prior disclosure to the AG, the chambers judge agreed to give the companies access to some but not all of the documents.

JacquesLaPointe-250In a statement to the media Wednesday, Steele said the province wants “to put the same framework [as Ontario], or a similar one, into our legislation, and then the documents will be turned over to the auditor general.” quotes Lapointe as complaining he suggested doing exactly that, but was stonewalled by government lawyers.

“[W]ith the benefit of hindsight,” Steele wrote to Contrarian, “It is obvious that we should have identified the issue of limited waiver as an issue that needed to be expedited, and we should have dealt with it in advance of the rest of the revisions.” Yup.

Steele made two other points in his email:

Something that was missed by the reporters was that the audit was supposed to cover March 2008 to September 2009 – in other words, 15 months of the last government, and only 3 months of ours. The idea that we are “covering up,” when most of the audit would have covered the previous government, is … well, far-fetched.

Our Cabinet has never made a decision to deny access. The matter never came before us because in the normal course we would have dealt with the matter when a legislative proposal was ready. In denying access, the Clerk of the Executive Council was simply following through on long-standing and well-established practice.

The second point is at best a distinction without a difference, at worst specious. Through most of the new government’s tenure, Robert Fowler was Clerk of the Executive Council. I worked for Fowler for two years, when he was CEO of the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency and I was its director of communications. We remain friends, and while we didn’t always agree, I can attest that Fowler was punctilious in his observance of elected ministers’ prerogatives. He may well have advised government to withhold the documents, but it is inconceivable he would have directed departments to do so without clearing the matter with the premier or deputy premier. I’m confident the same is true of his successor, Greg Keefe.

The whole embarrassing saga further erodes the new government’s political capital and moral authority. It suggests that, as with many new governments, especially those with no experience governing, senior civil servants are running the show. If this is indeed a problem, it is partly a result of a too-small cabinet, spread too thin.

One final note: Lapointe comes off as a bit of a show-boat in this exchange. He appears to enjoy his increasingly frequent sashays through the media spotlight. A civil servant who has experienced one of his audits complains that his MO is abrasive rather than constructive. That’s consistent with the impression he left here.

MLAs’ pay and public begrudgery, redux

Back on February 15, Contrarian had the temerity to opine that the MLAs’ expense scandal was pretty small potatoes—more a matter of public begrudgery than actual wrongdoing. This evoked private expressions of appreciation and gratitude from MLAs and political aides of all parties—and howls of indignation from readers (here, here, and here).

Events swiftly made my apologia seem naively over-generous. Two MLAs resigned, a third was kicked out of government caucus, and Premier Darrell Dexter, who built his career on his seemingly perfect ear for public sensibilities, turned suddenly, stubbornly, and uncharacteristically tone-deaf when his own personal expenses fell under scrutiny.

Much of what I said remains true and warrants repeating.

  • It’s invidious to conflate legitimate expenses for riding offices, and travel to and from Halifax, with salary, and call it all “compensation.”
  • The circumstances of individual MLAs — remoteness from Halifax, size of riding, local culture of constituent service, committee duties — are almost infinitely varied. Any set of rules governing expenses will necessarily be arbitrary, and will beget examples that seem unreasonable.
  • MLAs incur many expenses that are not receiptable They are hit up constantly for donations, gifts, handouts.


The public nurses an attitude of begrudgery toward politicians, and the media fans these embers at every opportunity. This is not our most attractive quality, and it makes it almost impossible for MLAs — who by definition must set their own salaries — to pay themselves appropriately for the work they do. So MLAs have, unwisely but understandably, developed a variety of secretive ways to pad their allowances.

All true, I still think. But I should have remembered Jeremy Bentham’s famous maxim:

In the darkness of secrecy sinister interest, and evil in every shape, have full swing. Only in proportion as publicity has place can any of the checks applicable to judicial injustice operate. Where there is no publicity there is no justice.

It should not have surprised anyone, least of all Contrarian, that sinister interest had flourished in the darkness of secrecy. It certainly didn’t surprise my readers, though it did infuriate them.

A few days after I posted my comments, Dexter’s maladroit handling of his own financial transgressions became the focus of the story. Word leaked out that taxpayers had been unknowingly footing the $3500 annual bill for his Barristers’ Society dues. The premier sought to justify this practice by asserting that the late Tory House Leader Michael Baker, also a lawyer, had suggested the arrangement, as if good-ole-boy bipartisanship would make it all OK.

dexter-304When this didn’t fly, Dexter grudgingly agreed to stop charging us for his fees, but declined to pay back money he already collected. And just by the way, now that he was picking up his own tab, a switch to inactive status, at $250 per year, seemed in order.

NDP insiders were privately chagrined at the brand damage caused by this cluelessness, and relieved when attention shifted to the almost comically sordid details of Trevor Zinck’s alleged financial misadventures. In Zinck’s case, for once, the party got out in front of the story, ousting him from caucus before the news broke.

A coda to the scandal played out on the last day of the session, when the media drew Dexter into speculating about whether the Auditor General Jacques Lapointe would or should name any MLA transgressors fingered in his soon-to-be-released forensic audit. Opposition leaders Stephen McNeil and Karen Casey had no trouble fielding this softball, forcing Dexter to reassemble the press corps for a clarification: He was in favor of naming names after all. Stay tuned.

The continuing saga has deepened already extravagant public cynicism about politicians, and sapped the New Democrats’ hard earned credibility as idealists. Both are sorry developments, in my lonely view. Our politicians face an array of issues requiring unpopular decisions, and it doesn’t help that so many citizens regard them as scoundrels.

[’s Brian Flinn deserves credit for pursuing this story for months before the Auditor General hit pay dirt. And a hat tip to Nelson MacDonald, who challenged me to revisit this topic.]