07 February 2011

A rose by any other name would still stink to high heavens

Pity Clayton Forsey.

He’s the Conservative member of the provincial legislature from the district of Exploits. Like many of his colleagues, he visited a town in his district recently and handed out a cheque from the provincial government as a “donation” toward the town’s up-coming tourism festival.

The regional weekly newspaper covered the event and described it this way:
Denise Chippett is the chairperson of the Come Home Year committee. She said the celebrations was enjoyable for all; what also helped were substantial donations from Exploits MHA Clayton Forsey and the town's volunteer fire department.
This week the Telegram picked up that line and started poking into it. The story appeared in the Saturday edition this weekend but sadly it isn’t available on line. The Telegram noted that Chief Justice Derek Green’s report into the House of Assembly spending scandal recommended that members of the legislature not make “donations” from their constituency allowances or with other government money.  If they did so out of their own pockets,  the politician is supposed to make it clear where the money came from.

Forsey is clearly bothered by the Telegram’s questions and, as the Saturday quotes him,  Forsey is quick to distance himself from that scandal.  The money is from a government department, Forsey says.  There’s a small fund in the municipal affairs department to help out with anniversary celebrations, as in this case.
"I've always presented cheques on behalf of departments. Ministers
don't always get out to these districts," Forsey said.
Of course you have to pity Forsey on two counts.  On the the first, he is merely getting nailed publicly for what his fellow government caucus members do on a regular basis.  As Forsey says, he “always” hands out government cheques. it isn’t really fair that he gets singled out in this way.

On the second, you have to pity Forsey for not appreciating that what he and his Tory buds are doing is exactly what the House of Assembly mess was really all about;  they are just using a different means to get there. You see, the main problem with the spending scandal was not that a few fellows defrauded the Crown, although that was bad enough.  The allowances system that existed in the House between 1996 and 2006 allowed individual members to engage in the old political practice of doling out goodies to constituents.

In his report, Green calls it “treating – providing food, drink or entertainment for the purpose of influencing a decision to vote or not to vote.”  That’s not exactly what this is, but the idea is related to the term more people know:  “patronage”.

As George Perlin described it nearly 40 years ago, “the dominant factor in Newfoundland politics has been the use of public resources to make personal allocations or allocations which can be perceived in personal terms….” The objective of this exercise is to connect the politician personally with the distribution of government benefits and garner political support in the process.

Consider that in this example, Forsey holds no government office and therefore has no right to hand out a cheque for government funds in preference to anyone else. Do opposition politicians get the same consideration?  Doubtful.  It’s more likely that a backbencher from the majority party caucus would carry the cheque.

In truth, the money did need to come in a cheque at all.  These days, the money could just as easily have come in a bank transfer from the department to the town.  Nor was there any need for a politician to have anything to do with it.  After all, as Forsey explains, there is a small fund available to any town holding some sort of anniversary celebration.  All the town had to do was fill out a form and wait for the bureaucrats to process it. The same thing should happen no matter where the town is, that is, no matter the political stripe of the person sitting in the legislature for that district.

But there’d be no political value in that, hence Forsey and his colleagues carry right on in the fine old tradition of pork.

The real value – the political value  - of the whole set-up, after all,  can be easily seen in the comment the chairperson of the anniversary committee gave to the paper.  It tied the money to Forsey.  And as Forsey noted he does this sort of thing all the time. Of course he does; so do his colleagues.  The money comes from municipal affairs or from the tourism, culture and recreation department where a bunch of small grant programs keep Tory politicians busy with cheque presentations.

There is absolutely no difference in what Forsey and his colleagues are doing and what virtually all of his predecessors  - leave the convicted criminals out - did with their constituency allowances between 1996 and 2006. All that happened in 2007 was that the pork-barrelling and patronage became the exclusive domain of the majority party in the legislature.

And in the end, that wasn’t really much of a change at all.

- srbp -