It's the easiest media story in the world: The government auditor issues a report slamming outrageously out-of-control provincial MLA expenses. Report the details, hound legislators for responses, demand release of more info, write screaming editorials. Repeat, for as many days as possible. I mean, why not?
But lost in the hoopla is context, and so an even bigger scandal is going almost unnoticed.
The words "corruption" and "Nova Scotian government" are perfectly interchangeable. Oldsters recount the not-so-distant days when party workers would distribute "rum and nylons" on election day, straight-up bribes for votes. And once in power, the parties---both the Liberals and the PCs---ran a house of graft that would shame Boss Tweed.
Stephen Kimber's excellent short history of that corruption in these pages in 2006 is a worthy read ("Paying for Power," tinyurl.com/NScorruption). "Companies wanting to do business with the government---from having their particular brand of booze stocked on liquor store shelves, to offering legal advice to crown corporations, to supplying the hamburger for the hash in local hospital cafeterias---knew they had to fork over a portion of the value of whatever they sold to their friendly Liberal fundraiser," writes Kimber.
The Liberals raised at least $4 million in illegal bribes just during Gerald Regan's years in office, 1970-78. It's anyone's guess, though, how much the PCs raised when they were in power---party fundraisers burned the records when the Mounties came calling.
Kimber makes the point that this corruption is by no means in the past. He recounts ongoing improper contributions from developers, and a Tory government lease of a warehouse for the liquor commission from a company owned by Tory insiders, costing taxpayers $1.3 million in uneeded expenses; that lease doesn't expire until next year.
I'd add that the hundreds of millions of dollars sloshing through various government economic development schemes stink of bribes and kickbacks, and that the Freedom of Information law remains weak and unenforced, allowing government to hide who-knows-what continuing malfeasance behind a wall of secrecy.
In this context, the MLA expense scandal is small potatoes. That's not to dismiss it; clearly, the scandal reflects an unbridled sense of entitlement and absolutely horrid judgement among our elected representatives. But, for the items detailed as improper or problematic in the MLA expense portion of auditor Jacques Lapointe's report, we're talking about "just" $73,527.
Compare that to another section in Lapointe's report, his audit of $830 million in public-private partnership school arrangements entered into in 1998 and 1999. Lapointe suggests that taxpayers are losing as much as $52 million in value through the contracts, which went to three companies owned by a collection of politically connected developers: Ashford Investments, Nova Learning and Scotia Learning. That's 723 times as much as was misspent by MLAs.
Even more worrying is that the contracts are so mismanaged that children are at risk. Lapointe found that P3 school employees were hired without child abuse or criminal registry checks, and did not have required CPR and first aid certification.
Lapointe's report makes clear that the problems are endemic to the P3 program, and yet in 2008, Rodney MacDonald's government hired a BC consultant to help expand the program. That company suggested P3 arrangements should be used for the building of two prisons, the twinning of Highway 104 and the establishment of an emergency radio system for first responders.
Planning for a privately built radio system continues apace. The Dexter government's reduced plan for a single prison was judged too small for a private firm to be interested in. And the 104 project seems to be in a state of funding and planning limbo.
We need a clean break from this sordid political system. First and foremost, Darrell Dexter should unequivocally order all government agencies to abide by both the letter and the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act, and he should lead by mandating that it applies to MLA expenses. Next, he should cancel all planning for P3 contracts.
As for the media, they should now put 723 times the time and resources they've put into the MLA expense story into investigating the P3 story.