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B.C., Alberta in need of a cure for political heartburn

Since the beginning of the Alberta election, Progressive Conservative Leader Alison Redford has been dogged by a scandal that may prove fatal to her party's re-election chances.

In Alberta, MLAs get paid extra for sitting on government committees. This policy has often been criticized as a backdoor way of giving MLAs more money. It was discovered a few months ago that 20 MLAs received a total of $870,000 for sitting on an all-party committee that hadn't met since November, 2008.

Members from opposition parties on the committee immediately agreed to pay the money back – a figure roughly in the neighbourhood of $40,000.

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But government members on the committee refused. Ms. Redford even mocked the opposition MLAs who agreed to pay the money back for indulging in a public-relations stunt.

But she quickly discovered that perhaps that wasn't the right response. Not only was the public's anger not dissipating, it was growing. Ms. Redford did an about-face and announced that her MLAs would pay back six months worth of the money they received for doing no work. Many of the Tory MLAs who were on the committee weren't happy with the decision. One who refused to pay the money back decided not to run in the election.

But the issue continued to dog Ms. Redford on the campaign trail. The decision to ask her MLAs to pay back only six months of the money they did no work for just didn't cut it with the public. And so Ms. Redford did another flip-flop on the issue this week when she announced that her MLAs would return all the money or not be allowed back in the Progressive Conservative caucus.

By this point most of the damage was done, however, and Ms. Redford's move looked like one inspired by her party's sinking poll numbers more than by some moral pang.

I was thinking of this little imbroglio, and the heartburn it has caused Alberta's governing party, as I pondered the latest news from British Columbia. One story that captured my attention was my colleague Mark Hume's terrific piece on the provincial government's efforts to stonewall the Auditor-General.

The Auditor-General is trying to get his hands on documents pertinent to his investigation into the government's decision to pay the $6-million legal fees of two civil servants who pleaded guilty to accepting bribes and other abuse-of-public-trust offences. The government has been throwing up obstacle after obstacle.

The story makes the government look horrible. The fact that the Auditor-General has had to go to court to get it to co-operate is appalling. And it will only fuel the perception that has existed since the terms of this deal were first disclosed – that the government isn't telling the whole story.

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Why did it go against its own policies in paying these costs? Why would it agree to pay $6-million in legal fees for two people who abused the public trust so egregiously? None of it makes sense and the public has never been provided with a satisfactory explanation of why it happened.

Maybe $6-million isn't a lot of money when you think of it in terms of a government whose annual budget is north of $44-billion. But nor was the $870,000 that was paid to Alberta MLAs to sit on a committee that never met a lot of money. As it is with these things, it's not so much the amount, but what it stands for. It becomes a symbol; a symbol of government waste, a symbol of a government out of touch with the public it is supposed to be serving.

And it can be interpreted as a sign of a government in need of a major recalibration.

In some cases, that recalibration happens at the polls. The Progressive Conservatives are in real trouble in Alberta. The party's 41-year-old dynasty is in legitimate jeopardy. And if the Tories do lose, the committee scandal will have played a major role in that historic defeat.

In B.C., the same thing could develop for the Liberals around the $6-million legal costs payout come election time. There isn't anything the government can do now about that decision. It can't suddenly ask the two convicted government officials for its money back.

But it could stop making the Auditor-General's life so miserable. By blocking his attempts to get to the bottom of this terrible decision, it only makes the public more suspicious and more incensed.

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