10 July 2006

Getting off the road to hell

In the spending scandal at the House of Assembly, the frame placed on the issue by the members of the House of Assembly - and by cabinet - has focused on overspending, breaches of the public tendering process and possible criminal activity.

Certainly those issues can be addressed, to some degree, by changes to the House's administrative processes and by the police investigations currently underway.

But comments by deputy premier Tom Rideout and Speaker Harvey Hodder this past week expose an even more significant issue in how the members of the House of Assembly spend public money intended to pay for their office operations. As noted here at the start of this scandal, the frame which elected officials want us to accept simply does not cover all of the problems the scandal entails.

Specifically, both Rideout and Hodder acknowledged that they and other members of the House of Assembly routinely make donations to groups in the community from public funds. We are not speaking of purchasing the odd ticket to a dinner for a church group. Rather we are talking, in some instances of single donations of thousands of dollars or the purchase of advertising "compliments of" this or that member of the legislature.

There are several problems with this.

Firstly, on the face of it, the money for operation of a parliamentary office should not be spent on any purpose other than that intended. It doesn't matter that members of the legislature granted themselves an exemption from the ordinary and accepted practices of government spending and thereby followed the rules.

The rules that allowed such spending were wrong.

Some of the donations apparently took the form of advertising. But the advertising we are speaking of here is not related to parliamentary business. What was intended in 1989, when these operations budgets were created, was the kind of advertising that tells constituents how to contact their member in the legislature. What members have apparently been purchasing as advertising is nothing more than personal promotion for the individual member and that is an entirely inappropriate use of public funds.

We went through this sort of waste in the free-spending years of the Peckford and Rideout administrations in the 1980s. At that time it was only cabinet ministers who had the budgets to allow for that type of waste. What occurred in 1996 was a return to the waste of the past, but in the new form all 48 members of the legislature were given the ability to waste public money on personal promotion.

In the example used by Harvey Hodder, he could easily have purchased a ticket to the school play in his district. That sort of spending is already covered in one way or another as the type of expense a public official will incur as part of his or her official responsibilities. It would also be far less costly than the personal advertising he has purchased untold times out of public money.

It is also useful to look at the alternatives Hodder used. Rather than spend money on a constituency newsletter, Hodder feels it is better to buy advertising for himself.

Note how many members of the legislature maintain constituency websites, for example.1 These days such a simple device is an inexpensive means of keeping in touch with constituents and informing them of a member's activities as their elected representative. It is exactly what constituency allowances would cover yet one wonders how many legislators opted to fund a little personal promotion - as Speaker Hodder would approve - instead of informing constituents on important issues.

Secondly, spending by members of the legislature under their district budgets is largely secret. While receipts are supposedly collected and kept on file, the only detail disclosed by the Internal Economy Commission (IEC) is the total. Voters - the people to who legislators are responsible have no idea how money is being spent and who is receiving the public cash.

This is the antithesis of accountability and transparency, despite the number of times those words have been tossed about over the past three weeks or in 2000 to justify changes to the IEC Act. We simply do not know what groups are being favoured, as at one observer has described the activity, nor do we know if the individuals involved are or have been political supporters of the individual legislator involved.

This leads to the third issue, namely that this money has been or could be used as a form of vote buying or other political corruption. This does not mean that members have actually been up to no good; rather there is an apprehension - a reasonable suspicion - that such behaviour could be taking place.

The image of the self-interested and corrupt politician is corrosive in our political system. Yet while Speaker Hodder and some other members of the lesiglature seem worried - lately - that their reputations are being tarnished, they have done nothing at all to dispell the concerns. Rather, Speaker Hodder is encouraging members to withhold details of the spending, claiming legal advice that these records may become part of the current police investigations.

In this instance, there is no meaningful way in which the disclosure of what we are assured are legitimate expenditures could compromise a police investigation into wrongdoing. What Hodder and others have been doing may be inappropriate, but it isn't likely to land them in jail. Instead, disclosure of members' spending details - even at this late stage - would help to persuade sceptical voters that Mr. Hodder and his colleagues are indeed spending publicly money appropriately. One wonders why such an obvious point can be so easily over-ruled by a lawyer's standard advice.

The fourth problem with this spending comes from the explanations being offered by Speaker Hodder, among others. Put bluntly, it doesn't matter at all that, in the instances we know of, recipients of the money are doing good work in the community.

Good works do not preclude the possibility that the gifts from Mr. Hodder and others carry with them or may be perceived as carrying with them some conditions that are less than desireable. No matter what the intention, Mr. Hodder and others have created a climate in which voters are compromised by receiving public money inappropriately.

If these programs are worthy of public financial support, then there ought to be specific votes in the government's own budget through the appropriate department. In this way, all such groups in the province would have equal and fair opportunity to receive public financial support. Any public spending ought to be done in as open, fair and equitable a way as possible. It must be devoid of even the appearance of impropriety. Sadly this not what has been occuring.

What has opened up in recent weeks is clear evidence that the rhetoric favoured by our province's politicians is a far cry from their actions. Rather than being genuinely accountable, open and transparent in spending of public money, members of the legislature have been secretive.

Only such information as members wish to disclose is actually made public and even that - as in the IEC reports such little information as to be all but meaningless. That is, they would be meaningless even if, as the Auditor General recently alleged, the House accounts were falsified in at least four cases. Our politicians give us only the information they want us to have. Genuine accountability would give us the information we deserve.

Money has allegedly been misappropriated, but as more information comes forward, we find that misspending goes beyond just overpayments to individual members. We have found that members are spending scarce public money on personal promotion. By their own admission, members are handing out donations to community groups using money that was never intended to be spent on anything other than the operations of parliamentary offices.

If there was ever a doubt about the need for a far-reaching public inquiry, then both Harvey Hodder and deputy premier Tom Rideout have given us fine and ample reasons to probe further into how members of the legislature have been handling public money.

A public inquiry is the only way we can get off the road to hell that has been paved, if Hodder and others are to be believed, with the good intention of helping fill children's bellies before starting school each day.


1 An alert reader tells me there are three.