17 October 2007

The deep roots remain

Harvey Hodder is the outgoing speaker of the House of Assembly.

His comments on the House spending scandal on Monday make plain that the people who endorsed, condoned, approved of and participated in the excesses simply do not appreciate that what they were engaged in was ethically wrong.

"Some members, myself included, paid some of my constituency expenses out of my own pocket so I would have more money to give to the school breakfast program ... I don't apologize for that," Hodder told a news conference at the legislature, saying the donations were the actions of "sensitive, outreaching, loving people."

"It is regrettable that there are hungry children in this province, in my former constituency, who could've benefited from some of that money."

As much as Hodder crowed about the new rules and the new standards, his own self-serving defence of inappropriately directing public money as cash gifts to individuals and organizations goes a long way to explain how the old system - which had rules - was systematically dismantled by the members of the legislature themselves.  Far from being a star chamber, the old House management committee comprised the senior leadership of the legislature, including successive Speakers.

If there was criminal activity, they did not know of it.  But they knew and condoned the excessive, and inappropriate, spending.  The allowances and assistance budget of the legislature was overspent by almost $1.0 million in the first two years of Hodder's tenure as Speaker. He and his colleagues knew that. They knew of the "donations" system and, as Chief Justice Green revealed, they overwhelmingly endorsed it. Newfoundland and Labrador was the only jurisdiction in North America and certainly the only one in Canada where elected officials had access to what amounted to a slush fund to dispose of as they saw fit.

The members of the legislature directed public money to whatever group or organization or individual they alone deemed worthy. They did so out of the public eye. They gave not a moment's thought - as Hodder makes plain - that the recipients of the legislator's largesse with public money were very often groups that received funding from the provincial government through established programs that were far more fairly and transparently administered than the legislature's scheme. 

As the school lunch association's annual report noted in 2003-04 (the last year available on line) "[e]ach year the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador contributes $75,000 to the program." The members of the legislature had it within their considerable power to increase funding through proper channels if there actually were "hungry children."  They had the ability to fund health care transportation or volunteer fire departments properly.  Instead, they elected to keep a fund available to themselves to hand out personally and largely secretly. If there are indeed hungry children in Hodder's district since the donations scheme was exposed, then that is because Hodder and his colleagues failed utterly to discharge their considerable responsibilities appropriately.

Hodder's staunch defence of inappropriate actions - even as he introduced new rules designed to undo the old scheme - should give every single voter in Newfoundland and Labrador considerable concern. While Hodder will soon be gone, his colleagues from all parties who participated in and enthusiastically endorsed the donations scheme have been re-elected.  Beth Marshall - the former auditor general - is even more strident than Hodder in her defence of of the inappropriate spending. There is no sign the re-elected legislators have changed their minds on what is appropriate and what is not, when it comes to spending public money any more than Harvey Hodder has.

And as the summer of pre-campaign love demonstrated, some politicians were quite willing to use public money for donations and to do so in a partisan fashion.

The roots of the House spending scandal are far deeper than most have been prepared to acknowledge.  The roots  - the very deep roots  - obviously remain.  Perhaps the new rules will starve them.  The people of the province can only hope the roots will rot.

Voters in the province would be justified in keeping a very close eye to make sure that, rather than starve the weeds, the politicians might find a way to nurture them to bloom in a new pot of public money.  Politicians who can see nothing in wrong in what they did, re-elected with what they may take an as overwhelming public endorsement of their actions, might find a way to bring back the old scheme in a new place.

As Harvey Hodder demonstrates - indeed as virtually all the old hands have demonstrated - self-serving rationalizations are never far from their lips.