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.
When 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.
[AllNovaScotia.com’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.]