You could be forgiven for assuming Nova Scotia Justice Minister Ross Landry actually believes in the democratic process.
"It's very important that we look at our demographic structure in Nova Scotia... and how we get fairness and equity into the system," he told reporters last week as his government-appointed, government-instructed “independent” electoral boundaries commission wrapped up public hearings on his government-ordered, revised second edition of its first rejected interim report.
In order to ensure this fairness and equity, Landry added, the commission needed “to go out and hear Nova Scotians and formulate new boundaries.”
The commissioners did just that. Last week in Yarmouth, they listened as more than 2,500 people crowded into a hockey rink in the middle of the doggiest dog days of summer to tell them—and through them, the government—how much they objected to the commission’s proposal to split their town into two different ridings, eliminating one of three area ridings entirely.
Landry’s response? A platitude about “democracy being alive and well.”
And almost certain to be ignored.
The government has botched this process from the beginning.
There was nothing wrong with raising questions about the legitimacy—and effectiveness—of the so-called protected ridings, which had been created in such a way as to make it more likely they would elect MLAs from otherwise under-represented black and Acadian communities. The problem was the numbers of electors in those ridings were so small they were out of whack with all the other ridings in the province.
The legally mandated 10 year review of electoral boundaries offered an opportunity to explore how to balance the desire that everyone’s vote be weighted equally with the need to ensure minority interests were also adequately represented.
But that wasn’t what the government wanted. It wanted—ordered—the “independent” commission to eliminate the protected ridings. And then provide government democratic process cover for its pre-determined outcome.
Given the to-be-eliminated ridings are represented by Liberal and Tory MLAs, and the to-be-created ridings are in NDP-dominated metro, it’s hard not to smell politics as usual at work.
Democracy is not alive and well in this case.
Copyright 2012 Stephen Kimber
You can—in a law-school-essay, sentencing-guidelines way—justify Justice David MacAdam’s decision to sentence disgraced former MLA Richard Hurlburt to house arrest instead of clapping him off to jail.
But not in the real world.
Richard Hurlburt repeatedly violated the trust of his electors while bilking taxpayers of more than $25,000, and then attempted—until the truth trapped him—to justify his actions.
In his decision, MacAdam argued “there were no other aggravating factors… other than abuse of his position of trust.”
Is that not aggravating enough?
MacAdam also did his best to draw distinctions between Hurlburt’s case and that of fellow former MLA Dave Wilson, who is now serving jail time in the expense scandal.
While Wilson had claimed expenses in the names of other people, the judge pointed out, there was no evidence Hurlburt “involved anyone else” in his illegal dealings.
What about the generator salesman, whose price “estimate” Hurlburt turned into a phony invoice and submitted as an expense? What about the taxpayers?
And remember, Dave Wilson was a gambling addict. Hurlburt was just greedy. That to me is especially aggravating.
MacAdams added Hurlburt “resigned shortly after the release of the auditor’s report, a year before charges were brought against him. He has issued repeated public apologies. He has taken full responsibility for his actions.”
Fact check time.
Hurlburt resigned because he’d been caught in his own fraud.
In February 2010, when he was first outed as the purchaser of the $8,000 generator—it took him another week to fess up to the $2,500 TV—Hurlburt didn’t apologize. He claimed the generator had been purchased “to assist local organizations in the event of a power failure.”
In truth, there was no $8,000 generator; he pocketed that money and only bought a cheaper one after the auditor general began poking around.
He also claimed he’d simply followed existing expenses regulations. There is no regulation allowing fraudulent claims.
Hurlburt’s resignation letter did say he was leaving “with deep regret and sorrow.” For what? He didn’t say. He’d already escaped to his vacation home in Florida and unavailable for comment.
Full responsibility? Not by a long shot.
Copyright 2012 Stephen Kimber
The good news is we won. The better news is that we won fair and square. The best news would be for the process by which Halifax’s Irving shipyard last week won a $25-billion federal shipbuilding contract-for-a-generation become the new norm.
But that last, of course, is least likely.
That’s because the shipbuilding contract was that rare special case in which the always tempting opportunity to claim credit smacked up against the even more critical need to deflect blame.
Usually, when politicians dole out big-ticket largesse, they either try to spread the wealth around so every no-name MP of the right political persuasion from every unlikely constituency—“Calgary sure is a fine place to build a destroyer”—gets their own say-cheese moment... Or they simply plunk all the cash where they think it will win them the most votes.
Sometimes, such cynical schemes backfire. Spectacularly.
In 1986, for example, Brian Mulroney’s government awarded a maintenance contract for its CF-18 fighter jet fleet to a Quebec firm instead of rewarding a clearly better bid from Winnipeg. Western anger over that slight helped spawn the Reform party... and we know where that led.
The current Reform... er, Conservative government certainly didn’t want this contract to go CF-18 on them, especially given competing bids from both coasts and Quebec.
But the Tories—to their credit— also wanted to use this once-in-a-generation contract to create more-than-a-generation centres of shipbuilding excellence in Canada.
So Harper shut out the lobbyists and muzzled the partisans. It’s no surprise he benched Nova Scotia’s “Patronage Pete” MacKay, and no surprise either that MacKay lashed out at the provincial NDP for claiming the (equally undeserved) credit he wanted all for himself.
Instead, Harper turned the process over to senior civil servants and a private sector “fairness monitor.”
By all accounts, the process worked—so well Canadians are asking why not use the same process for other big contracts, like Harper’s recent sketchy $9-billion, no-tender fighter jet deal?
And why not extend this fairness idea to provincial, even municipal contracts?...
Uh, right... This is Canada. Pity.
Copyright 2011 Stephen Kimber
Michel Samson is right on both counts. The Liberal MLA is right to acknowledge that last week’s collection of NDP appointees to various provincial agencies, boards and commissions is clearly a well qualified lot.
But he is right too to point out the unbecoming hypocrisy of a government that—while in opposition—railed so righteously against patronage picks.
Last week’s 16 rubber-stamped, Grade-A choices include a former federal NDP MP, a former provincial NDP MLA, a former provincial NDP candidate, the father of a current NDP cabinet minister and a party donor. The government, Samson noted, had already appointed another former NDP MLA and the son of a former provincial and national leader to significant positions too.
But interestingly, neither Samson nor Chris D’Entremont—a Tory member of the Human Resources Committee, who also tut-tutted the NDP’s hypocrisy—appear to want the process changed.
Someday, they said without saying, it may be their turn to reward friends and punish enemies, and they don’t want their own plum-proffering proscribed. (Perhaps the real reason the NDP opposed the system in opposition was that, at the time, they couldn’t imagine becoming the government…)
Our appointments process is far better than it used to be—how could it not?—but it can still be improved.
These days, if you apply for any of dozens of now-publicly-advertised positions—from the Agricultural Marshlands Conservation Commission to the Crane Operators Appeal Board—your application is first vetted by a non-partisan committee of civil servants and lay appointees.
The names of those chosen to do the choosing are published on the government’s website.
Once the vetters come up with their list of qualified candidates, it is passed on to the minister responsible who gets to make the final choice.
But we never get to decide for ourselves if the minister has chosen the best qualified candidate because the other names on the short list aren’t made public.
Which is neither transparent nor accountable.
It would be a small change but making those names public would give us the information we need to make up our own minds about whether the best qualified candidate got the position.
Transparent. And accountable.
Copyright 2011 Stephen Kimber
The Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation is right. There, I’ve said it. And it only hurt a little.
While I can—and do, and will—dispute the larger goals of this never-met-a-public-expenditure-it-can-stomach crowd, the CTF did discover real slime under its latest freedom-of-information rock.
Though there are only a million aboriginals in Canada, 82 reserve politicians “earned” more than the prime minister’s $315,462 salary last yea
r, 222 pocketed more than their provincial-premier counterparts and 70
4 raked in the tax-free equivalent of $100,000-plus.
One Nova Scotia councilor—on a reserve with 304 members—took home $978,468 tax free.
Some First Nations leaders argue these CTF remuneration numbers are ripped from their context—that the packages lump together salaries, honoraria, travel expenses and contracts for native businesses, and that native political leaders don’t get plush pensions like their non-native colleagues.
Some complain darkly that singling out native leaders smacks of racism.
Mi’kmaq elder Daniel Paul blames the Department of Indian Affairs, which he says has been “well aware of what’s going on and have chosen not to do a thing about it.”
There is plenty of blame to go around.
Traditional government paternalism coupled with a more recent laissez-faire fear of appearing to question First Nations’ autonomy created fertile ground for nefarious native leaders who choose to take advantage.
Whenever politicians operate in secret and are unaccountable to the people who elect them, entitled-to-their-entitlements corruption is sure to follow. (See Nova Scotia MLA expense scandal, federal sponsorship scandal, David Dingwall, et al, ad nauseum.)
What makes this scandal more difficult to digest is the stark reality of non-leader aboriginal life in Canada.
Consider the third-world conditions that exist on many Canadian reserves. Consider that aboriginal young people are seven times more likely to commit suicide than the national average. Consider that the unemployment rate for aboriginals in Nova Scotia last year was 17.4 per cent compared with nine percent for non-aboriginals, and that employed aboriginals earned just 77 per cent of hourly waged non-aboriginals.
Now consider again those CTF numbers.
It is past time for transparency and accountability. It’s time to put power in the hands of native communities, not native leaders.
Copyright 2010 Stephen Kimber
So Liberal leader Stephen McNeil has his knickers in a righteous knot because Darrell Dexter’s new 19-member economic advisory council includes a few of the premier’s union “buddies.”
I’m delighted this new volunteer group—set up to “provide advice to government on strategies and actions to grow the economy and act as a sounding board on government initiatives for labour force development and fiscal management as directed by the premier”—includes such an eclectic mix of advice-givers.
True, the advisory council does include more worker representation than your average Tory or Liberal appointed group. What’s wrong with that? There are also plenty of articulate voices of business, including organizations (Halifax Chamber of Commerce), entrepreneurs (Joe Shannon, Jim Spatz, Michael Donovan) and corporate bosses (Robert Patzelt of Scotia Investments Ltd.).
More significantly, this advisory board cuts a wide swath through Nova Scotia. There are representatives from the universities, community colleges, tourism, environmentalists, volunteers, women’s advocacy and even some young Halifax-based residents “who are inspired to make their city a better place to live, work and play.”
This is exactly the kind of group that should be sitting around a table together debating government economic initiatives and arguing over the future. Even better—faint hope—if they held their discussions in public.
As for McNeil’s specific complaints—that Dexter shouldn’t have appointed Building Trades Council president Cordell Cole because he was involved in last year’s election campaign fundraising scheme that turned out to be against the law, and should have disqualified two other union reps because they made “bullying” comments about small business—let’s take them one at a time.
Cole, like most appointees, is there because he represents an important economic interest group, in this case 14 unions and 12,000 skilled building tradespeople. They need to be at this table.
And public workers’ union reps fired broadsides at business groups that are advocating deep cuts in the number of government employees... uh, Stephen, what do you expect? On the flip side, we have the Chamber of Commerce—another group now represented in the advisory council—which attacked the government for raising the HST.
So it goes. Life.
While the Liberals—and the media—have their knickers knotted over this faux flap, a more important issue gets little attention. The NDP continues to refuse to provide the legislature’s all-party human resources committee with useful, vettable information on applicants for the province’s more than 130 agencies, boards and commission. Now there’s a scandal waiting to happen...
Copyright 2010 Stephen Kimber