22 June 2007

One last trip to the trough?

To commence a new era of accountability in the Newfoundland and Labrador legislative assembly, the House of Assembly Accountability, Integrity, and Administration Act was introduced, which is a piece of legislation that incorporates the recommendations of the Green Report.
News release:"House Leader Extremely Pleased with Productivity During HOA Spring Session"
Government House leader Tom Rideout,
14 June 2007

[Updated with new post script. originally posted 9:00 PM, 21 Jun 07]]

Deputy Premier Tom Rideout may be pleased, but most Newfoundlanders and Labradorians likely don't realize that Rideout and his fellow legislators quietly shelved some key provisions of Chief Justice Derek Green's legislation aimed at cleaning up the House of Assembly spending scandal until after the fall election.

The members delayed implementing restrictions that, among other things, ban the practice of handing out gifts and donations from constituency allowances.

Here's one section on hold until after October 9:
46 (5) A member, in his or her capacity as a member, shall not make a donation or gift, whether of a charitable nature or not, to any person, group or community except as may be contemplated by subsection (3) and section 27. [Emphasis added]

(6) Where a member makes a donation or gift, whether of a charitable nature or not, in a personal capacity, the member shall, in making the donation or gift, stipulate that any acknowledgment of the donation or gift shall not identify him or her as a member.
Right behind it is another provision that further restricts what public money can be spent on:
47. (1) An expense of a type listed in subsection 46(3) may not be

reimbursed if

(a) it is not directly connected with the member’s responsibilities as a member in relation to the ordinary and proper representation of constituents and the public;

(b) it is incurred in relation to partisan political activities or promotion; or

(c) one or more of the following persons has a financial interest in the contract or other arrangement under which the expense is incurred or in a corporation that has a financial interest in the contract or other arrangement under which the expense is incurred:

(i) the member,

(ii) an associated person in relation to the member,

(iii) another member, and

(iv) the spouse or child of another member. [Emphasis added]

The amendment was made at the committee stage on the very last day of the session as everyone was looking to get the last bits of work cleared up. The seemingly innocuous changes were moved by Rideout and passed on a voice vote all in the space of a few minutes.

The change was made even more speedily and without any public comment. By contrast, even the hasty changes to the Internal Economy Commission Act in 1999 that barred the auditor general from the Assembly accounts garnered a few remarks from each of the House leaders in turn.

The changes to the Green bill were more like a St. John's City Council pay hike vote. Here's the extract from Hansard, in which Deputy Premier Tom Rideout moved an amendment:
MR. RIDEOUT: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

I would like to move that the bill be amended by adding immediately after clause 71 the following: 71.1.(1) "The rules contained in the Schedule shall be treated for all purposes as if they had been made by the commission under section 64 and, to the extent necessary, to have been adopted by the House of Assembly under subsection 20(7)."

Also, subsection (2) "Notwithstanding subsection (1), the rules contained in the Schedule may be dealt with by the commission under section 64 as if they had been made by the commission."

CHAIR: It is moved by the hon. Government House Leader that clause 71 be amended. The Chair rules that the amendment as put forward by the hon. Government House Leader to clause 71 is in order.

Is it the pleasure of the Committee to adopt the said amendment to clause 71?

All those in favour, ‘Aye’.


CHAIR: All those against, ‘nay’.


Motion amendment, carried.

CLERK: Clause 72.

CHAIR: Clause 72.

The hon. the Government House Leader.

MR. RIDEOUT: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

I move subclause 72(2) of the bill be amended by adding immediately after paragraph (b) the following: (c) "The Schedule comes into force on October 9, 2007."

CHAIR: It is moved by the hon. Government House Leader that clause 72 be amended. The Chair rules that the amendment as put forward by the Government House Leader is in order.

Is it the pleasure of the Committee to adopt the said amendment to clause 72?

All those in favour, ‘Aye’.


CHAIR: All those against, ‘nay’.


On motion amendment, carried.

CHAIR: Is it the pleasure of the Committee to adopt clause 72 as amended?

All those in favour, ‘aye’.


CHAIR: All those against, ‘nay’.

Clause 72, as amended, is carried.

On motion, clause 72, as amended, carried.

That's it.

It all looks like gobbledlygook or trivia until you check the bill, as passed and see what the amendment to section 71 and of course section 72 did.

Turns out the amendments meant that certain provisions of the bill wouldn't come into force until after the next election. Those sections are largely the set of rules on allowances and spending - actually titled "Rules", incidentally - that are intended to:
(a) to provide resources to members to assist them to fulfill their public duties and responsibilities as members of the House, for the benefit of the residents of the province;

(b) to promote accountability in, and transparency with respect to, the expenditure of public funds; and, [Emphasis added]

(c) to facilitate public understanding of the use of public funds in fulfillment of members’ obligations.
Basically, all the sections of the bill setting controls on constituency allowances aren't in place and won't be in place until after the next election. One of the strong rules that won't be in effect until after October 9 would hold a member liable for over-runs on his or her allowance. Chief Justice Green's analysis, similar to observations made by Bond Papers last fall, suggests members of the legislature were more inclined to run up their allowance spending in the period immediately before an election.



Apparently, not a single member of the legislature quoted in Rob Antle's otherwise fine story in the Telegram mentioned that some provisions of the bill - particularly about constituency allowances - were being shelved until after the fall election.

Legislature green-lights Green report; House adopts recommendations of report issued by chief justice

The recommendations of Chief Justice Derek Green are now black-letter law.

The House of Assembly swiftly passed Bill 33 Thursday. The new law incorporates the recommendations of Green's report into financial arrangements at the legislature. Green provided draft legislation as part of his sweeping review.

It was the last piece of business attended to during the spring session of the House. Lt.-Gov. Ed Roberts gave the new law royal assent.

Bill 33 contains a series of new requirements aimed at fixing financial controls at the legislature.

Those include new layers of audits, a more transparent salary structure for MHAs, stricter ethics and accountability rules for politicians, and a revamped commission overseeing the affairs of the House.

The legislature will also be thrown open to the province's freedom of information laws.

Members from all parties lauded the new law during debate in the House of Assembly.

Finance Minister Tom Marshall said that changes to things like salaries for politicians will be done through the legislature "in full sight of the people of the province."

Liberal Opposition House leader Kelvin Parsons lauded the fact that future dealings in the House will be transparent and accountable.

NDP Leader Lorraine Michael thanked Green for his work.

"All we can do now is move forward," Michael noted. She said Green's recommendations allow the legislature to do that.

Topsail MHA Elizabeth Marshall made a personal observation - she never anticipated becoming an MHA and voting on a piece of legislation that righted the wrongs of the past.

She was auditor general in 2000 when politicians barred her from examining the books of the House.

A series of law and policy changes over the years enhanced benefits for politicians, and reduced public access to information about how tax dollars were being spent.

Auditors were allowed back in to the House after the Tory government took power in 2003.

Auditor General John Noseworthy's subsequent findings sparked a series of ongoing police investigations into current and former MHAs and a key House staffer. Noseworthy found questionable spending of at least $4.4 million. He is still reviewing the appropriateness of all constituency allowance claims back to 1989.

Marshall said the passage of the new law means "transparency, openness and accountability at the House of Assembly probably for the first time ever."
Update II

The 10 Commandments didn't come with a start date.

Moses took good dictation, and when he came down off Sinai, he had the whole ready to go from that instant.

There's more than something odd that when Chief Justice Derek Green handed down clear rules, the members of the House of Assembly decided they'd put off living under them for a few months; conveniently, until the election is over.

Official spokespeople will not doubt raise some lame excuse like the need to set up the new system.

Problem with that excuse is that the rules could have been implemented the day the legislation passed. They work under the old administrative system or the new one, because the rules say things like "No donations" or "If you overspend your account, you will pay out of your own pocket."

After all, how many times did we hear someone like education minister Joan Burke tell us that there were no rules and she needed someone to hand her rules to follow? or Paul Oram tell us exactly the same thing: we need rules, 'cause right now we don't have rules, so we need rules and now that we have rules, Linda/Randy/Bill, everything will be fine.

What the members of legislature missed of course is that for the past year we have had reminder after reminder about the need for accountability. Slipping through amendments and not mentioning it at all - like the 2800 secret bucks - is fundamentally the opposite of being accountable and transparent.
"Transparency and accountability are the building blocks of public confidence," Chief Justice Derek Green of the Newfoundland Supreme Court's Trial Division wrote in a 1,300-page report released Thursday. [From the Telegram]

Penetrating insight into the obvious.

But it was so obvious that the members of the legislature didn't get it.

Just like they didn't get it at any point over the past decade.