A promise is not a law until it is

It happened so long ago that Alexa McDonough was still the leader of a rag-tag band of New Democrats in the provincial legislature. And I was a still-young-ish reporter.

McDonough had just introduced a private member’s bill to reform the ways in which political parties got financed. Its specifics have long since escaped my memory. But I do recall that everyone knew the legislation—like virtually all such proposals that arrived without the imprimatur of the party in power—had no chance of passing. Her critics accused her of grandstanding.

Why should we believe you’re serious, I asked her?

You shouldn’t, she replied matter-of-factly. That’s why we need laws. To make sure whichever party forms the next government, or the one after that, can’t just do what will benefit its own interests. Voters, she said, shouldn’t have to depend on the too often-empty promises of campaigning politicians. Of any stripe.

I couldn’t help but think of that as I watched the MLAs expense scandal unfold. The NDP is now the government. It has the power to reform the system. But its record to date is mixed.

The NDP started off well enough. It eliminated the policy of providing cabinet ministers with cars, for example. That was a next logical step in a reform process that had begun with Ernie Fage’s 2006 fender bender. The fact that the minister was driving an expensive, taxpayer-provided vehicle at the time had already prompted Rodney MacDonald’s Tories to tighten the rules on cabinet ministers’ pricey rides. (Scandal, of course, has long been the best—often the only—driver of reform.)

And the NDP, during its first legislative session last fall, killed a number of the most outrageous perks of office, including the too-generous severance package for retiring or defeated MLAs and payments for chairing ghost committees, and cut back on members’ technology allowances in the name of fiscal restraint.

But the government has continued to resist efforts to open up the process for appointing people to provincial boards and commissions—reforms it had championed in opposition—and it waited until after the firestorm over the auditor general’s report to make changes to an MLA expenses system it knew was corrupt.

The new and more transparent expenses rules announced this week are another positive, if belated step, but not until those changes get enshrined in legislation and regulation.

As Alexa McDonough rightly said, we shouldn’t ever have to depend solely on politicians’ promises.


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