18 October 2009

“Feeling queasy”: Is quieter better?

People in Newfoundland and Labrador must surely be looking with some puzzlement on the flap over federal Conservatives handing out government money as if it was their own.

In this province, their provincial Conservative cousins have the thing down to a science. The use of public money for partisan benefit is an old one in Newfoundland and Labrador but this current crowd have raised it to a fine  art. 

The House of Assembly spending scandal was – for the most part – a scam worked up to push free and untraceable cash that politicians could hand out to all and sundry in their district for any purpose the politician could think of approving.

So pervasive was the practice that a review by the auditor general found scarcely a single politician from any political party who sat in the House after the scam started in 1998 who did not use it to some extent. 

The review also revealed that the politicians elected after 2003 used it with an enthusiasm their federal cousins could only envy.  Of the top ten spenders as a percentage of their constituency operations allowance, six were elected after 2003 and all but one was a Tory.

As it turned out, one of the biggest supporters of the public cash for partisan benefit scheme was a former auditor general.  Ironically, she was the one the House management commission blocked from looking at some aspects of the scam while it was first organizing.  Beth Marshall also felt no qualms about handing out cash in small and larger amounts, nor did she feel any difficulty that there was a skimpy audit trail for the cash or that money was going to duplicate  existing government programs in some cases.

The use of public money for partisan purposes was not confined to individual members of the legislature and that’s where the parallel with the federal Conservatives really becomes apparent.  Since 2003, the Provincial Conservatives have worked to make sure that local partisan benefit came from any available pot of public cash:

-  As we found out when Tom Rideout packed it in, road paving and construction is over-seen by a political staffer in the Premier’s office.

Since 2003, it has been consistently managed in a way to maximise the benefit to Conservative districts and to punish those that voted for another party.

Fire trucks are a recent favourite for the spending announcement with the local MHA. With the recent by-elections and political upheaval, the fire truck announcements are coming about one a week.

The one they’ve consistently used is the small time cash being handed out by one department or another.  The money is from a legitimate departmental program but when the cash is handed out someone from the government caucus gets the credit.  It is inevitably called a “donation” or a “contribution” to make the free cash sound like anything but what it is.

There’s nothing new about it.  Back in 2007, Bond Papers linked to an old CBC news story that dates from the early 1970s that mentions the same practice dating back three or four decades and more.

But just because something is old is not a reason to think it is okay.  Not all traditions are fine or honorable.

Nor is it any better that it is done quietly in these parts as opposed to brazenly at the federal level.  The quiet nature of the local practice makes it all the more insidious.

Done loudly or quietly, though the practice is enough to make anyone concerned for the state of our democracy feel very queasy indeed.