02 November 2011

Working stiffs and lazy ones #nlpoli

For some reason, TransCon papers carried a story on newly elected Liberal member of the House of Assembly Jim Bennett and his plan to carry on a law practice while he sits as an opposition member in the legislature.

The Telegram even put the thing in its Saturday paper.  Here’s a link the version carried by the Western Star.

What’s so striking about this is that it is a complete non-story.  As you’ll see part way down the page, the conflict of interest section of the House of Assembly Act quite rightly exempts ordinary members from the restrictions on carrying on with another job or outside business interests while serving in the legislature.

So why single Bennett out?

Good question.

The story turned out to be a bit of fodder for at least one of the local radio talk-shows.  But there again you have to wonder why they singled Bennett out for comment and, in some instances, for criticism. It’s not like others haven’t done the same sort of thing in the past or aren’t doing it now.

For example, Paul Oram carried on several businesses while he served as a backbencher in the Tory caucus.

osborneNew Democratic Party leader Jack Harris carried on an active law practice the whole time he sat in the legislature. Other backbench lawyers have done the same thing.

St. John’s South MHA Tom Osborne runs a music promotion business called 5th String Entertainment. On the right, you’ll find the online registration for the company with Service Newfoundland and Labrador.

Nothing odd about politicians and entertainment:  once upon a time, not so very long ago,  another Tory ran a popular downtown nightspot while he sat in the legislature.

kentEnterprising young fellow that he is, Steve Kent used to have a small consulting company. 

Since he’s been in the legislature, though, Steve’s been running a driver training business with his wife as partner.

Steve also serves as chair of the board president and chief commissioner of Scouts Canada.

There is nothing unusual about backbench members of the legislature carrying on with private businesses or a career while they are also in the legislature.

So why did some local media single out Jim Bennett?

Hopefully it was nothing more than laziness and sloppiness.

If they weren’t lazy and/or sloppy, they could have done a quick check and turned up all sorts of people.  And the list here contains only the ones your humble e-scribbler noted over the years. 

Undoubtedly ,someone going through the individual member’s disclosure statements could find other businesses or professional practices backbenchers are still carrying on.  The cabinet ministers will all have their stuff in blind trusts  But backbenchers can continue to work a second job.  There’s no legal or ethical reason for them to stop unless the second job interferes with their ability to do their elected job.

More to the point, though, there’s no reason why any of us should expect backbench members of the legislature to give up their other interests. That’s especially true for licensed professionals who would have to stay current in their profession in order to stay licensed.

It’s interesting to note that while Chief Justice Green spent a considerable part of his report discussing the idea that holding a seat in the legislature to become a full-time job in itself. Green discusses the issue at some length and makes the following observations:

If one can tease an underlying legislative policy from this subsection [27 of the House of Assembly Act] , and extrapolate into the broader arena, it is that the life of an MHA does contemplate other non-political activities; and where there is a conflict between those other activities and the Member’s duties, the test for determining whether the Member is properly fulfilling those duties is not a quantitative one (i.e., not defined by reference  to numbers of days or weeks, vacation entitlement, etc.) but a qualitative one (i.e., to use the words of ss. 27(4), “… so long as the member, notwithstanding the activity, is able to fulfil the member’s obligations …”).

The issue under discussion is not theoretical.  In the 1970s, a Member attended university full-time outside of Canada for the better part of a year.  In the 1980s a Member continued to act as a deputy mayor of a municipality.  More recently, since my appointment,
two issues have entered the public domain relating, respectively, to certain Members who were  allegedly “moonlighting” by carrying on the practice of law
and a Member who allegedly was unavailable to deal with a public issue in her district because she had been working outside the province as a nurse. [p. 9-28]

In the end of that section, Green recommended, among other things that:

To eliminate confusion on the point [full-time versus part-time] , the legislation should also state that a Member, qua Member, is not prohibited from carrying on a business or engaging in other employment or a profession, provided that the nature of the business, work or profession is such that it does not prevent him or her from attendance in the House when it is in session and from devoting time primarily to the discharge of his or
her duties as a Member when the House is not in session.

- srbp -