31 August 2007

House management committee reveals more fumbles on the road from perdition


The members of the House of Assembly's internal management committee have voted to prevent members of the legislature from making claims against their constituency allowance once an election has been formally called. They met for the first time this week.

In an effort to appear more attentive to controls on public spending, Speaker Harvey Hodder is quoted in a CBC news story, linked above, as saying that:

"If members who are incumbents can access their constituency funds during the election period, that in my mind does not facilitate a level playing field for all candidates."

Sounds wonderful, until you realize that this decision came in a fairly obvious response to the revelation that the old rules on constituency allowances - not the tighter Green ones - will be in place until October 9. Members can still make donations from their funds, even though Green decried it and his new rules prohibit it.

As you may recall, deputy premier Tom Rideout turned himself and the very concept of time in knots trying to explain away that bit of business.

In any event, the members of the new commission - which incidentally includes many faces from the old committee - also voted to take away cell phones from members of the legislature once the election is formally called.

Sounds marvelous, until you realize that under changes to the Elections Act also made last spring, voting is actually already underway.

That's right. The legislature has not been dissolved and candidates are not legally in place but people have actually voted already, as they have been legally entitled to do since August 20.

Sounds wonderful too, until you realize that once an election is called, there are actually no members of the House of Assembly to file claims. The election is formally called when the Premier visits Government House and advises His Honour to dissolve the House.

By definition, dissolving the legislature puts everyone on the street and everyone - including incumbents - becomes nothing more than a candidate. They have no right, legally or otherwise, to lay a claim on the public purse for a single nickel of expenditure from their constituency allowances. They have no right to travel expenses or cellular telephones or any of the other perks of office since - by the most obvious of obvious points - they no longer hold office.

(As an aside, cabinet ministers remain cabinet ministers since they actually hold those appoints separately from their place as members of the House. Government administration carries on even without a legislature. Their incomes should drop as well, given that they are not entitled to pay as members of the legislature during a period when - legally - they aren't members of the legislature.)

So what went on here?

Mr. Speaker Hodder claims that the management committee were correcting a problem with Chief Justice Green's report. According to the CBC story, Chief Justice Green "recommended that incumbent members of the house should be able to use government money to do their constituency work after the writ is dropped."

Of course, there is no such recommendation among the list of recommendations in the Green report. It is hard to imagine the Chief Justice consciously creating a complete nonsense. By reputation, Derek Green doesn't do nonsense.

There is an anomaly in s. 14 of the Green bill that would entitle members to claim allowances and expenses until the date of the next election. (That's easy to explain given the size of the report and the amount of work involved.)

The section, as it stands, would literally mean voting day, but, as such, it clearly contradicts the legal order dissolving the legislature and therefore vacating every seat in the House. The two things can't exist at the same time and, as much as your humble e-scribbler is not a lawyer, it would be a safe bet that any court worth its stuff would toss that section of the Act out the window on the face of it.

In their haste to get the Green bill through the legislature last year and appear to be making substantive changes, the members and their lawyers obviously missed this point. They were able to delay the bits of the legislation that would have genuinely restricted spending by members, until after the election - although they didn't tell us that - but they missed the little anomaly that really ought not to have caused much concern.

What the management committee did today was tidy up an oversight and then claim a great moral victory by blaming the mess on Chief Justice Green. Pure fluff and nonsense.

It's good they fixed the problem, but frankly, trying to claim credit for doing something that they all know couldn't really exist in the first place seems just a bit of a stretch.

Of course, restricting the thing to the period after a writ drops seems a waste of time given that these same legislators are able to claim expenses during the real election which, as we've said, started on August 20.

But here's an interesting question:

Even though that little section of the Green bill wouldn't stand up to a court challenge, what about the sections of the Elections Act that allow voting in an election that hasn't been called yet?

Is that constitutional?

Update: Voting has started and, apparently so has the amateur political commentary from I.P Freely. This stuff turned up during the by-elections during the winter and it seems to have returned.