Expenses scandal meets lynch mob

The morning after the big semi-reveal—the auditor general had turned over to the RCMP expense-claims files on one current and four former MLAs, but he wouldn’t say which ones to avoid compromising the criminal investigation—CBC Radio Information Morning’s political panel weighed in.

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The panelists—veteran freelance journalist Ralph Surrette and former newspaper editor and Tory cabinet minister Jane Purves—both have well-earned journalistic credentials for fighting political corruption. That may be why what struck me most about their comments was their undertone of unease at the seemingly insatiable media appetite for—and public obsession with—this scandal, to the detriment both of more important issues, and also of public faith in elected officials.

The reasons for their unease quickly became apparent.

Within hours, Kevin Gaudet, spokesperson for a self-appointed lynch mob—also sometimes known as the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation—was telling a reporter our legislators should forget the niceties of due process, innocent until proven guilty and all that inconsequential stuff, and expel forthwith any member even suspected of finagling or fudging an expense from the legislature.

“Perhaps,” he suggested—his tongue unfortunately not in his cheek but his foot firmly planted in his mouth—“that would raise the bar of integrity.”

Indeed.

In the same article—hopefully in response to a hypothetical question from the reporter and as a comment on tactics rather than ethics—Acadia University political science professor Ian Stewart mused on the likelihood that Independent MLA Trevor Zinck is the single still-sitting member of the legislature whose expenses the Mounties are now investigating. If that’s the case, Stewart argued, the other MLAs could easily bounce him from the seat to which he was duly elected as “a cost-free way of attempting to show they are on top of the integrity issue and they’re responding to the public’s outrage.”

Fanning the outrage flames, Gaudet weighed in with the self-fulfilling suggestion that the MLA expenses scandal “fuels speculation by the voting public, taxpayers, that too many politicians are a bunch of crooks and thieves.”

I’ve covered Nova Scotia politics for 40 years. I’ve met a few crooks and thieves. Most MLAs aren’t. But they are human; thanks to lax legislation and less oversight, some found it too easy to confuse private benefit with public interest. Outrage over the expenses scandal was a wake-up call; this winter’s legislative reforms make the system more transparent and less susceptible to expense-fiddling. Outrage worked.

But now it’s time to let the criminal process work. And move on to other more serious—and expensive—political screw-ups. P3-schools, anyone.
 

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Copyright 2010 Stephen Kimber, Website

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