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Charges against politicians rock Nova Scotia perks system

Independent Nova Scotia MLA Trevor Zinck, right, sits behind members of the opposition in the legislature in Halifax on Thursday, April 8, 2010. Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter says 52 charges laid today against one sitting and three former members of the legislature casts a dark shadow over the province's politics. Independent member Zinck, the only member still sitting, is charged with fraud, theft and breach of trust.


Nova Scotia was once known as a province where vote-buying and personal enrichment by politicians was accepted, even expected.

Liquor handouts were an easy way to grease election campaigns, and public employees could be fired en masse when the governing party changed. Pleading guilty to fiddling expenses wasn't necessarily enough to prevent a politician from being re-elected.

But criminal charges this week against four current and former politicians could bury for good the vestiges of these tawdry attitudes. The charges of fraud, forgery, theft and breach of trust stem from a long-running expenses scandal that has infuriated the public and tarred politicians from all parties.

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Embarrassed political leaders have responded to the outrage by moving to fix a compensation system open to abuse. It was seen as a belated recognition that public opinion had hardened.

"The politicians did not realize the depth of public feelings against what they were doing," said John Boileau, author of The Peaceful Revolution: 250 years of Democracy in Nova Scotia. "Perhaps the message is slowly settling in."

For years, politicians here had benefited from a cozy system of deciding perks behind closed doors. Under rules they had established, politicians could claim thousands of dollars worth of electronic items and furniture as expenses with minimal oversight. They could spend tens of thousands on postage, travel and accommodation without providing receipts.

Auditor-General Jacques Lapointe's exposure of the system was an embarrassment across the political spectrum.

All three parties had representatives on the secretive body that regulated these perks. And members of all three parties admitted to inappropriate spending. People with ties to all three parties were charged this week.

"I think the vast majority of Nova Scotians have contempt for these people," said David Johnson, professor of political science at Cape Breton University. "All the parties have to demonstrate that they're clean and don't have dirty hands."

Some politicians had realized the system was indefensible. But attempts to draw attention to the problems met with a chilly reception from their colleagues.

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In 2005, while in opposition, current Finance Minister Graham Steele denounced political compensation as "a model of secrecy and complexity," suggesting perks were a politically palatable way to pump up salaries. His concerns sparked no change, and he said he was painted as a maverick.

Mark Parent, a cabinet minister under the former Progressive Conservative government, was surprised to learn that he wasn't allowed to equip his constituency office with second-hand government furniture. Instead, he was told that he had to buy it new and expense the purchases - and that he would own whatever furniture he chose.

"The thing that bothers me, other than the crime obviously, is the sense of entitlement," said Haligonian Jim Muir. "There's a long tradition of carelessness with taxpayers' money."

Observers say that years of minority government helped produce an increasingly lavish perks system. The parties had to work to keep each other onside and there was no motivation for rocking the boat. Added to that is the lingering effects of what some describe as a deep-rooted culture of political corruption.

"It's a little bit different what is happening today, but there's an over-arching theme of using public money to line their own pockets," said Mr. Boileau, the historian.

He said the problem goes back to pre-Confederation politics, when it was considered routine for powerful families to award themselves lucrative contracts. And rabid partisanship continues to allow some voters to turn a blind eye to misbehaviour by members of their party.

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"There's this kind of ingrained attitude that my father and grandfather and great-grandfather voted for the Liberals or Conservatives," Mr. Boileau said. "That's who I am and I refuse to be swayed by the facts."

Freelance writer and pundit Ralph Surette said that he's not convinced Nova Scotia was more corrupt than other provinces. But "it hung on longer and it was deeper here."

The gravy train came to an abrupt halt after the Auditor-General shone a spotlight last year on the system. And this week's charges leave no doubt about the standards politicians must maintain.

"I think there has been a chastisement there that has been taken to heart," Mr. Surette said.

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