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.

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:

Screen Shot 2013-05-09 at 8.06.04 PM

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.

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