14 September 2007

The lure of soft money redux

Initial news coverage and most public reaction to the latest report on the House of Assembly scandal will focus on the easy and the obvious.

Wine, artwork, pens, jewelry, cigarettes, travel, and hockey tickets.

On the eve of a provincial general election, Premier Danny Williams is encouraging people to look beyond the scandal now that reforms are supposedly in place:

But at the end of the day, do not lose faith in the political system in this province because our democracy is too important for the electorate to lose faith.

Our democracy is too important for people to lose faith in it and in the people elected to lead. However, we should not be rushed past this latest report with the admonishment of the New York cop to gawkers at a skyscraper suicide: "Move along, there Johnny, nothing to see here. " Nor should we be distracted by the baubles and trinkets that too many focused on already.

Rather, we should focus on the core damage done to our democracy by a decade in which politicians of all shades, new and old, handed out public money as gifts to constituents based solely on their own discretion and almost entirely hidden from wide public view, let alone scrutiny.

Bond Papers has hit this point before - the lure of soft money - and earned the Premier's ire for it. The Auditor General's report on Friday brings home the point once more. Of the $2.2 million in questionable spending John Noseworthy identified, $1,471,108 (63%) went to what have been incorrectly called donations.

No one should miss the point that the highest years of total inappropriate spending identified by Noseworthy were the most recent:

2001-02 2002-03 2003-04 2004-05 2005-06
$217,200 $272,729 $388,948 $284,725 $299,261

As a matter of simple observation one can see that after a peak in the last election year, inappropriate spending did not decline; it increased. For all the assurances of change, even as the scandal broke, clearly something continued to be amiss. Even after the public received the Green report - and its scathing condemnation of the gifting practice - members of the legislature still opted to keep the rules in place that allowed gifting, at least until after the election.

For those who may not be sure of what we are driving at here, let us simply quote Chief Justice Derek Green on the point:

First and foremost, the practice of making financial contributions and spending in this way supports the unacceptable notion that the politician’s success is tied to buying support with favours. Such things, especially the buying of drinks, tickets and other items at events, has overtones of the old practice of treating - providing food, drink or entertainment for the purpose of influencing a decision to vote or not to vote. As I wrote in Chapter 9, it demeans the role of the elected representative and reinforces the view that the standards of the politician are not grounded in principle. In fact, I would go further. The old practice of treating was usually undertaken using the politician’s own funds or his or her campaign funds. To the extent that the current practice involves the use of public funds, it is doubly objectionable.

Related to the notion of using public funds to ingratiate oneself with voters is the
unfair advantage that the ability to do that gives to the incumbent politician over other contenders in the next election.

To put it simply, gifting erodes our democracy in a far more insidious way than does anything else the Auditor General has described. Nothing revealed in his report is acceptable, but it is the widespread nature of gifting that should make it more odious than some of our politicians appear to appreciate.

Beyond that, gifting, as practiced over the past decade calls into serious question the judgements of legislators. The money was given for things that either used to be or were covered by government programs that were as fairly, equitably and impartially distributed as might be possible. These include eyeglasses and medical devices, funding for volunteer fire departments, accommodations and transportation.

Some of money given as gifts actually replaced programs such as medical assistance transportation eliminated from a budget voted by the same legislators. In no small irony, it would seem that just this past election summer, the members on the government side had found a way to continue making gifts of public money, this time through line departments. The lure of soft money has not dissipated; the siren merely sings its tune from another cliff.

Gifting knows no party boundaries.

Look at the top 10 gifters in the study period, by dollar volume. All, coincidentally, are or were cabinet ministers; some served as members of the Internal Economy Commission while on the opposition benches, while in government, or both:

Rank Name Party Amount
1. Wally Anderson Liberal $88,954
2. Judy Foote Liberal $69,131
3. Ed Byrne PC $63,284
4. Loyola Sullivan PC $44,848
5. Tom Osborne PC $44,770
6. Anna Thistle Liberal $43,445
7. Percy Barrett Liberal $43,444
8. Sandra Kelly Liberal $42,398
9. Paul Shelley PC $37,331
10. John Ottenheimer PC $36,868

But to make sure the picture is clear , let us also consider the top 10 gifters by percentage of allowance given as gifts. What will become apparent is that gifting is not merely a hold-over from the days before 2003. They all represent constituencies on the northeast Avalon, arguably the most prosperous portion of the province.

They are almost all some of the newest members of the legislature (other than those elected in recent by-elections) and all embraced the gifting system with an enthusiasm that outshines the ardor of longer-serving members of any political party.

Rank Name Party Percentage
1. Diane Whelan PC 49.05
2. Shawn Skinner PC 46.96
3. Kathy Dunderdale PC 46.90
4. Bob Ridgley PC 38.21
5. Elizabeth Marshall PC 34.23
6. Tom Osborne PC 30.16
7. Hubert Kitchen Liberal 30.10
8. Sheila Osborne PC 26.30
9. David Denine PC 25.96
10. John Ottenheimer PC 25.49

The formal election campaign begins on Monday. Many have talked of an election about sweeps by the majority party, unprecedented popularity, the poor performance of the opposition parties and resource deals worth billions. As a result of the Auditor General's latest report, the focus of the campaign for many voters may wind up being questions of ethics, judgment and propriety.

If this report and the practice of gifting it reveals is an indication, those are exactly what we should think about before casting our votes.