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Political expenses

Entitlements are a minefield for elected officials Add to ...

Cars can say a lot about a politician.

Finance Minister Mike de Jong, still driving the Miata he had when he was first elected two decades ago, was unimpressed when he first made it into cabinet and was presented with a ministerial vehicle – he dumped it as soon as he could. But it was the rentals that sent him into paroxysms.

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His tenure as forests minister called for frequent travel around the province. At every airport, there would be a rental car awaiting him. “We’d immediately drive to a forestry office where there were 37 vehicles in the parking lot.” He would ask, why not use one of the forestry trucks for the day instead, and save the rental costs? “It took two months and a couple of temper tantrums to get people to understand. … So it’s a hundred and fifty bucks. But what I found there is no better way to instill a larger message than by dealing with the small stuff.”

It is the small stuff that has seared so many B.C. politicians.

In recent weeks, Mr. de Jong has been restrained in his public comments when colleagues on both sides of the House faced the public’s wrath for overindulging in the entitlements of office. Shame-faced MLAs Jenny Kwan, Linda Reid and Raj Chouhan have all written cheques to repay taxpayers for personal expenses – but only after public exposure of their publicly funded perks.

It is a minefield that elected officials have laid out for themselves, and then stepped into, with predictable results.

As one of the longest-serving Liberal MLAs in B.C., Mr. de Jong has frequently urged fellow legislators to increase accountability and transparency when it comes to the pay and perks that MLAs can collect. Even after a series of reforms, there is a paucity of disclosure around how B.C.’s politicians spend public money on themselves.

Progress has been made and this year, for the first time, the committee that controls the $70-million legislative budget has met in public. More details will be available starting next month, and MLAs on the Legislative Assembly Management Committee will meet next week to discuss adopting stricter spending rules.

Questions over how politicians and others who depend on public dollars spend those funds in doing their work are a constant in politics. But there has been a perfect storm of entitlement issues of late stirring up new angry, exasperated debate.

Alison Redford’s decision to spend $45,000 to attend Nelson Mandela’s funeral was among the factors that cut short her run as Alberta premier. That, and the Senate expense scandals generated by Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau have provided the backdrop for the latest B.C. embarrassments.

Ms. Kwan, who represents the poorest neighbourhood in the province, is on an unpaid leave of absence after repaying $35,000 in family vacation travel expenses incurred by the Portland Hotel Society, a publicly funded social agency. Last week Ms. Reid, Speaker of the Legislature, grudgingly paid back the business-class fare for her husband to travel with her to South Africa last summer. Mr. Chouhan, the deputy Speaker, who attended the same conference with his wife (but travelled economy class), then followed suit.

It is Ms. Reid, not Mr. de Jong, who controls the legislature spending, and in her short tenure she has not embraced his fiscal restraint message. She has approved tens of thousands of dollars in renovations to the legislature and at her constituency office, including a $48,000 computer setup for the Speaker’s throne in the House.

It is the lack of scrutiny that has created the conditions for abuse. An auditor general’s report in 2012 found basic accounting practices weren’t being followed when it comes to the spending on the legislature’s operations. The auditor found no annual reports, no documentation for MLA travel expenses and more than $1-billion worth of transactions that were not properly recorded.

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