23 August 2009

Old habits die hard: legislative expenses version

In the United Kingdom, an inquiry into the expenses scandal at Whitehall is running into members of parliament griping about their quality of life.  The MPs want improvements, so it seems, despite the excesses which have been revealed in the past few months.

Meanwhile, the Bow Wow parliament has a committee holding hearings before the committee submits recommendations on a new pay and allowances scheme for local politicians to the House of Assembly management committee. 

Ostensibly, the committee wants to get public input. So far only five people have turned up to offer views to the committee at hearings held across the province.

  That’s hardly surprising given that the committee is holding hearings during the time when most people in the province  - including most politicians - take a nice long break from the business of politics.

But here’s the question no one seems to have asked in Newfoundland and Labrador:  why is the committee out there in the first place?

The politicians will tell you they appointed the committee because it is in the Green bill, the legislation that came after the local spending scandal hit daylight. Now that is true, but there was considerable discretion available to the legislators. 

Since they got their salaries set in 2007 at the time of the last election, they could have amended the legislation so that the next salary committee wouldn’t be appointed until after the next general election 2011.   They also could have delayed appointing the current committee until some time in early 2011, thus giving members of the legislature a full four years at their old pay scheme before they would look at an increase.

Either of those approaches would have shown some restraint on the part of members.  This might have been prudent given that the public is more than a wee bit soured on them after listening to the litany of miss-spending and excuses for same that poured forth from the honorable members.

And it’s not like the poor darlings wouldn’t have seen any pay hikes in the meantime.  Under section 15(3) of the Green bill, they would have collected the same percentage increases the executive of the public got in any given year.  That’s not bad for a crowd making a hefty wage anyways and given that almost half of them or more are drawing extra pay allotments, members of the legislature can hardly claim they’ve been hard done by. 

Rather than do either of those things, the members of the legislature  - most or all of whom are members of the successor to the old internal economy commission - decided to go for a restructuring of their pay and allowances scheme in addition to the annual percentage hikes a mere two years after the system came into effect in the first place. 

They decided to do it at a time when the public are – for the most part – simply not paying attention to things political. The politicians discussed postponing things until the fall, incidentally,  but decided to carry on such that the bulk of the work was being done at the worst possible time of the year. 

Well, worst possible time if one was serious about getting public input.  The resolution appointing the committee went through the House in May.  The committee must report no later than the end of October. The hearings will be over and done – save for one – by the end of August. 

Their report will then find its way back to the House of Assembly where it will be passed, one expects, as quickly and as quietly as possible in what has become a notoriously lightweight and very short fall sitting of the House.

That’s pretty much how most things involving pay and allowances for members have been handled over the past decade.  Despite all the public furor, despite all the revelations of miss-spending, the members of the provincial legislature are carrying on much as they have always done when their pay and allowances are involved.

Old habits -  it seems -  die very hard indeed.