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Political expenses

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

What that historic lack of fiscal oversight has wrought: gold-plated pension plans for politicians, which were eventually pared back; government jets that served as a private taxi for cabinet ministers and were grounded. An independent panel recommended raises for MLAs, but the prospect is so toxic that there cannot be a reasonable public debate now.

Promising political careers have been ruined by small but highly symbolic choices – Peter Hyndman’s bottles of Pouilly-Fuissé wine, or “Flying Phil” Galardi’s trip on the government Lear jet to bring a granddaughter to Dallas for the weekend.

Increasingly, even following the rules isn’t enough. Mr. Chouhan was permitted to bring his wife to the conference at taxpayer’s expense, but still returned the money after it made headlines.

“This ‘buy now, pay when caught’ routine they have got going has to come to an end,” said Dermod Travis, executive director of IntegrityBC, a non-profit think tank on political reform.

Mr. Travis says too many newly elected members of the legislature forget the outrage they felt as members of the public about wasteful government spending. “Imagine if you were not the MLA, but just a constituent, how you would react to every statement, spending decision and expense you make as an MLA,” he said.

Some have suggested there is more latitude for lavish spending in the business sector than the public sector. But a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business says it is a little more complicated. Whereas speakers, MLAs and premiers are accountable to voters, business people are accountable to shareholders and optics can be important, especially for leaders, says Daniel Skarlicki, Edgar Kaiser Professor of Organizational Behaviour.

“In business, the tone is set at the top,” said Prof. Skarlicki, noting that spending sends a powerful signal, and has to be consistent with corporate goals.

The leader who flies the corporate jet while cutting staff is creating a contradiction that can be corrosive, he said. “Government and business are different, but they are not that different,” he said.

The acting director of the UBC school for would-be politicians sees fodder for this summer’s curriculum, aimed at helping politicians-to-be steer clear of such perils. Political scientist Gerald Baier has been watching it all as lead instructor for the Summer Institute for Future Legislators, which started last year. The 2014 iteration of the program will take place in both Vancouver and Toronto, rallying such veteran politicians as Preston Manning, Chuck Strahl and former B.C. premier Mike Harcourt to offer lectures.

The current issues, including the Portland Hotel Society audit fallout that has entangled Ms. Kwan, the veteran NDP MLA, provide “cautionary examples” for students. Part of the lesson from the critical mass of incidents is that rules around spending are no protection from public scorn, he said. “Relying on the rules is not a defence. The rules are one thing and public perception is another.”

Mr. Harcourt, premier from 1991 to 1996, said there will always be issues around political entitlements because of human nature. “You can lay out policies and regulation and legislation that tries to encourage a certain code of behaviour, but you’re always going to have somebody that will transgress,” he said. “People screw up.”

For those politicians who zealously guard against screw-ups, it is a source of frustration. “Whenever there are dubious expenditures, it reflects on us all,” Mr. de Jong said.

He believes the $70-million annual budget for the legislature and its elected officials needs more oversight. If an MLA’s receipts were publicly disclosed, he believes they would think twice before charging the public. “In setting the budget for this place … there is no rational, logical or convincing argument for not putting it all out there in as much detail as possible.”

Four ideas for curbing the spending habits that have lately raised questions about the spending of public funds:

Roving auditor

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