22 January 2009

Shovel-ready indeed

If ever there was a shovel-ready project crying out for federal infrastructure spending in the midst of this global economic meltdown, it would be the international tourist attraction that could be built in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The attractions in this cross between Ripley’s, Believe or Not! and Madam Toussaud’s would surely be the raft of colourful characters who are the province’s  public figures.

There is the politician who welcomed the Juno awards to Newfoundland and Labrador on a cold day in January by giving new meaning to the term rhinestone cowboy.

There is the former politician who, 30 years ago this year, was found by a judicial inquiry to have been one of two people responsible for leaking confidential police reports into a fire to some of the leading journalists and editors of the day rather than return the obviously illicit documents to the police.

This former cabinet minister, fittingly 30 years later the host of an afternoon yak-fest for the radio station known colloquially as voice of the cabinet minister, finds no problem, for example,  in offering opinions on the appropriate sentence for another former politician even though the court case is not done.  At the same time, he will chastise those who would call his afternoon radio show and mention the name of a prominent figure or well-known business or organization about which they may have an opinion.

We will not repeat in detail there number of times this fellow speaks of events when he was in cabinet as though he was not there at the time.

Then there is the other voice of the common, man, who now finds himself the host of another radio show at the same station.  He long ago reached conclusions on the Churchill Falls deal long ago, most of them being based on commonly held but often-times unfounded ideas, yet recently gushed about the marvellous book he was reading on the subject.

Said book was written in the mid-1970s.

The centrepiece of this new Mecca would surely be the House of Assembly, the legislature of this place. Roger Fitzgerald, the speaker of the local parliament, answered questions this week about inappropriate payments made to local politicians. The questions came after the auditor general’s latest annual report provided an update on the whole business.

Fitzgerald straight-facedly told reporters that he had a legal opinion that the legislature could not recover money identified as spent inappropriately by province’s auditor general since the money was spent under the rules at the time.

"It was common practice for members to submit claims like donations and in some cases, maybe liquor purchases depending on what it was for," Fitzgerald said.

"I don't think members should have to repay those particular expenses. If they did, they should've been told at the beginning that it was not an acceptable practice."

Never mind the number of current politicians who insisted there were no rules at the time. Never mind, either, that, as Fitzgerald well knows, the people he thinks now should have been doing the telling were the ones who set the rules that said the inappropriate spending was okay in the first place.

The inappropriate spending included public money handed out as donations to all and sundry, as well as purchases of alcohol and double-billings of expenses.

Fitzgerald is one of the few current or former members of the legislature who is paying back some of cash. (He spent only 33 bucks on booze) The $17,942 in public he gave as donations isn’t part of the amount being repaid.  Nor will virtually all the rest of them be required to repay the public for much beyond the double-billings even though in some cases they handed out as much as half the money in their expense allowances in a way labelled inappropriate by both the auditor general and the chief justice of the Supreme Court’s Trial Division.

It’s not like they don’t have the power to order a repayment of the whole shooting match or, in lieu of that, to seize property and other assets owned or controlled by the current and former members to satisfy the debt.

After all, only one day before the House closed last fall, the legislature seized assets of a host of Italian, Newfoundland, mainland-Canadian and American businesses.  They quashed a court case and ordered no compensation for it. They did it based on no other foundation other than that  - legally – they could do so by majority vote.

Such joys may only be found in the notion of parliamentary sovereignty:  the members of the legislature set the rules.

How can it be that the all-powerful are struck suddenly impotent?

Surely it wasn’t a legal opinion that flies in the face of the legal opinion the members themselves rendered last December.

Perhaps we could hand out shovels to the visitors at our new attraction and let them dig about until they come up with the answer themselves.

We won’t need to give Roger and the rest of his political friends a spade.


He’s already been shovelling it enough this week for the lot of them.