I'm not religious, but last Sunday I felt like parking myself in the nearest church pew to thank god for the uproar over MLA expenses. At first, I thought the expenses story was a tempest in a teapot. I blamed sustained media hype for the furor over MLA spending on such items as big-screen TVs, digital cameras, laptop computers and electrical generators. But last Friday, I changed my mind when a sensible-looking woman the CBC identified as Jen McLaren told a TV reporter: "It's our money and they're buying things that we can't afford, that people with lower incomes can't afford. And it just seems outrageous."
Well, it does seem outrageous even though, as my colleague Tim Bousquet pointed out last week, overall spending on constituency office furniture and electronic gadgets that the auditor general deemed inappropriate or excessive, totalled $73,527. That's small potatoes considering that over the three-year period of the audit, total provincial spending came to roughly $16.5 billion. In other words, excessive MLA expenditures on furniture and electronics amounted to a minuscule 0.00045 percent of provincial spending. Yet, that's not the point. As Jen McLaren noted, many Nova Scotians couldn't afford to buy Richard Hurlburt's $3,508 big-screen TV, Darrell Dexter's $2,667 digital camera, or even Judy Streatch's $833 espresso maker. And don't get me started on Liberal Dave Wilson's four laptops! No, it's not the total amount of spending that makes people angry, it's the fact that MLAs spent public money on high-end consumer goods when many taxpayers were having a bitch of a time making ends meet.
Now, here's why I felt like thanking god. Finally, thousands of people who usually don't pay much attention to politics are steamed over what our politicians are up to. And when that happens, politicians and public officials are forced to act. Darrell Dexter quickly ordered the release of detailed financial information showing which MLAs spent how much on what. He also promised to lift the traditional secrecy surrounding the process for setting MLA expense rules. And the auditor general was forced to investigate whether any MLAs broke the law. Yes, when voters get mad and start paying attention, the politicians and public servants have to get their asses in gear.
I've been following politics since 1957, when John Diefenbaker narrowly defeated arrogant federal Liberals. That was more than half a century ago, and believe me, a day hasn't gone by since that I haven't felt angry about what our politicians are up to. Here's an example. On April Fool's Day 2009, Rodney MacDonald handed Lockheed Martin up to $1.8 million in payroll tax rebates. In return, the company, which enjoyed $45 billion in sales and net earnings of $3 billion last year, promised to create 100 jobs over five years. But why did we need to bribe Lockheed Martin with Nova Scotia taxpayer's money when the company is already working here on $2 billion worth of federal government contracts to upgrade 12 Canadian naval frigates? I mean, jesus, why does the world's largest military contractor need corporate welfare handouts from the debt-ridden Nova Scotia government?
I guess the answer is that corporate subsidies are so routine most taxpayers hardly notice. A 2008 study from the right-wing Fraser Institute reported that between 1994 and 2006, Canada's federal, provincial and municipal governments handed out $182.4 billion in business subsidies such as subsidized loans and grants. (Unlike me, the Fraser Institute doesn't consider business tax breaks to be corporate welfare.) An earlier Fraser study found that big military contractors, including Lockheed Martin, Pratt and Whitney and General Dynamics were among the 50 largest corporate welfare recipients. Those huge military companies already enjoy hefty government contracts yet continue to receive corporate welfare, including tax breaks.
The furor over MLA spending makes me ask: Would all hell break loose if the media hammered away half so hard at how much Nova Scotians are paying to subsidize profitable corporations?