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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.

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.

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

Vancouver businessman Rick Peterson, who is seeking the leadership of the B.C. Conservative Party, has called for the creation of an independent roving forensic auditor who would randomly select targets and look for potential misuse of taxpayer funds. Mr. Peterson says the auditor would be elected during provincial votes and would be at arm’s length from government. The auditor would lead an “audit SWAT team” to defend the public purse. “It would serve as a warning that there’s a big stick out there.”

Online receipts

Jordan Bateman, B.C. director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, says MLAs would think twice about their spending if they had to post every receipt for an expense online. Receipt posting would give watchdogs and the media an opportunity to vet all spending, Mr. Bateman said. “It would be a constant reminder that all this stuff is going to be out there for everyone to see. Don’t spend anything you don’t want to see on the front page of the newspaper.”

Conference reports

MLAs should be compelled to write reports on all conferences they attend that would be easily accessible through freedom-of-information requests so the public could tell that the MLAs were diligent in extracting something from such events, says Dermod Travis, executive director of IntegrityBC, a non-profit think tank on political reform. “Politicians who attend these conferences and may think they don’t have to do anything may think twice about whether or not they want to go,” Mr. Travis said. “That would be a way that people could tell in the future if it is good value to attend these conferences.”

Tightened rules

There are already comprehensive guidelines for government travel, covering such issues as the use of air miles gathered in trips, who signs off on trips and rules on using charter aircraft. But political scientist Hamish Telford says it may be time to recommit to the rules and tighten them up in a high-profile way that would make the effort visible to taxpayers. “There are guidelines that exist, but clearly the guidelines allow for too much individual discretion that can be interpreted too widely,” says Prof. Telford of the University of the Fraser Valley.

- IAN BAILEY

 

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