16 July 2008

In defence of the House of Assembly


If you were to read just the post at Polemic and Paradox, you'd imagine that the members of the House of Assembly management committee were trying to sneak themselves and their colleagues a huge bonus by changing rules regarding per diem payments to members of certain committees.

The post quotes some sources and certainly sounds like there might be some facts and hence some meat to the claims made in the post with the provocative title "Rebuilding confidence and upping the perks". 

To heighten the innuendo, there's even a description of the process by which the new rules  - actually amended rules - will come into effect: 

The new changes will not come into effect until they are voted upon at the next meeting of the Management Commission, rubber stamped by the Speaker, sanitized by Legislative Council, and approved by the Speaker and Gazetted. [Emphasis added]

The only problem is that the post is wrong.  All you have to do to destroy the smear and innuendo is look at the public record in its entirety.

First of all, there is the Hansard transcript of the meeting (June 4) at which the proposal first came up for discussion. 

It's pretty clear, as the Speaker presents it, that the payments for attending a meeting when the House is not in session only applies to two committees - management and public accounts - and on top of that only applies to that very small number of members not receiving salaries for other duties.

The Speaker rightly notes that the other committees of the House - such as they are - are really only called to meet when the House is sitting hence there's no extra payment involved for those members.

The total amount of money potentially involved here is $6,515.

Read further in the transcript and you'll find that opposition House leader Kelvin Parsons even suggests wording for the rule that would prevent someone from coming back later and trying to claim both the salary and the per diem:

That way there is absolutely no misunderstanding if somebody tries to put forward an argument that, well, I am Opposition House Leader but I am coming into town for a meeting with the Standing Committee so therefore I am entitled to the per diem; just so that is very clear that you do not do that.

Second of all, as the transcript makes plain, the root of the whole issue is the structure of the members' pay system as set up in the Green bill.  Chief Justice Derek Green abolished sessional payments and non-taxable amounts in addition to a basic salary and replaced them with clearly defined remuneration for a clearly defined purpose.  

The amounts are established in the Green bill itself, specifically, section 12.  The sub clause under discussion here is (3):

A member who sits on a committee of the House of Assembly, the commission or a committee of the commission may be paid, subject to the conditions and limitations prescribed by the commission, a daily amount of not more than $200 for attendance at meetings plus reimbursement of reasonable expenses in relation to that attendance when the House is not in session.

That brings us to the third point of all, namely the amount.  Not only do we have a well-established principle here, described in detail by Chief Justice Green last year and set out in law, but we have a set maximum amount of $200 per day. That amount and the associated expenses are laid out plainly on page 10-1 on the member's resource book.

But then we need to look at what the House management committee actually decided.

In the draft amendments currently proposed, the committee refined the simple statement contained in the Green bill and lowered the amount. They didn't raise it.  They didn't take the Green number literally. They lowered it.

While Green provided a maximum of $200, the new version provides a flat amount of $145 for a committee member and $190 for the chair.  Not a lot, you may say, but the difference is important.

Reading is apparently optional as is comprehension in some quarters.

What makes this sort of public smear all the more deplorable is that it involves the work of two committees and only two committees of the legislature.  Leaving aside the house management committee, the only other committee to which it applies is public accounts.

For those who don't know, public accounts has been - historically - a key mechanism by which ordinary members of the legislature hold the government to account for its spending of public money.  The committee in this and other places has typically used the auditor general as a means of investigating programs and spending. It does so either by examining issues raised by the auditor general in his or her annual report or by tasking the auditor general specifically.

However, from 2000 to 2006, the public accounts committee sat typically not more than four times during the year.  This key committee essentially fell apart.

Indeed, so dysfunctional was the committee in the recent past that in the first three years of the Williams administration, the committee met exactly twice.  it did not meet at all in 2004 and met once in each of 2005 and 2006.

Chief Justice Green discussed the public accounts committee at some length in his report.  He describes the importance of the committee in the Westminster system and proposes a renewed and strengthened role for the committee in the House of Assembly.

You'll find plenty of posts at Bond Papers on the slow and relentless diminution of the legislature in this province.  This cannot be allowed to continue if our democracy is to emerge from the recent dark period stronger and more vibrant.

As Chief Justice Green noted, the public accounts committee must have a crucial role to play in accountability and oversight.  It is for that reason that he established a payment schedule to pay members for work done, not for merely holding the appointment as it was previously.

Thus, by attacking the Green proposal, Polemic and Paradox is effectively arguing against the very measures needed to strengthen the legislature. The scurrilous innuendo of the post serves only to undermine a legislature which is already laid low by recent problems.  The post doesn't help;  it serves only to do more damage.  That it is built on half-truths makes it all the worse.

It is one thing to offer a legitimate criticism, founded on facts, aimed at correcting a problem.  It is quite another to misrepresent a set of circumstances in order to launch an attack. We need to restore the legislature to its important place in our political system rather than continue the trend of more recent times to demolish it through neglect, mischief or a combination of the two.