Column for April 16, 2006

Is it just me or can you, too, hear the distant melodic strains of John Buchanan singing “Out on the Mira,” or catch the faint whirr and whiff of an untendered, unwanted electric toilet seat off in the distance?

It is perhaps too early to consign our new premier to the dustbins of provincial political history, heaped in with the unsavoury likes of the soon-to-be-retired as senator but never quite forgotten as premier, John Buchanan — a Tory who blithely managed to send our public debt into the stratosphere while taking care of his political friends — or our already forgotten but never forgiven premier-for-an-hour, Russell MacLellan — a Liberal who cheerily managed in a few short months to undo most of the hard-won political patronage reforms his predecessor had implemented at the cost of his own leadership.

Still, it is probably worth reminding ourselves, and sooner rather than later, of the well-travelled patronage path Rodney MacDonald is now taking us back down.

In the past few weeks, MacDonald has been roaming the province, gripping and grinning for all we’re worth: a million bucks for the province’s libraries here, another million so the Abilities Foundation can recycle children’s wheelchairs there. “Everybody wants to be able to get around,” MacDonald cheerily explained between photo ops. And get around he did, offering up $1.8 million for hog farmers, $200,000 for a roof for the Black Cultural Centre, $250,000 for a fibre optic network for Kentville, even $5,000 for the Dartmouth Business Commission so it could scatter outdoor ashtrays around downtown.

All this in just a few weeks, and all the while, of course, protesting with a nudge-nudge, wink-wink straight face that he isn’t just pork-greasing our wheels for a provincial election campaign.

“I’m not worried about that aspect of it,” MacDonald blithely declared after handing out that freshly minted cheque at the Black Cultural Centre. MacDonald’s cash — to cover the costs of a new roof — was a commitment his own officials had refused to make less than a month before.

The spending binge isn’t over yet, and won’t be until MacDonald finds the last lonely stretch of highway somewhere in Nova Scotia that’s still in need of a premierly promise of asphalt, or we go to the polls — whichever comes first.

And so it goes.

All of this might seem like little more than the usual pre-election politics in a province where cheque-writing still passes for political discourse.

But there is also the more substantive matter of the Industrial Expansion Fund — the Tory friends-and-family slush fund the government recently topped up with another $50 million of our money in order to help their friends and buy our votes — that is turning out to be as blatantly sleazy as anything Buchanan or MacLellan could have dreamed up.

Credit (or blame) where it is due, however. The fund, in fact, was created by the sainted John Hamm, MacDonald’s predecessor. A little over five years ago, Hamm set up Nova Scotia Business Inc., an arm’s length agency that was designed — and bragged about — as a way to put government investment in business on a sound financial footing. Since it might actually have done that, Hamm also established the expansion fund, a politically controlled cash dispenser, to sidestep his public commitment to take the politics out of economic development.

The benignly named Industrial Expansion Fund, as one government bumph document delicately explains it, “has considerable flexibility in the amount and type of funding it can provide. Consequently, it is frequently employed to assist the development initiatives … when the solution to a potential opportunity falls outside the financing mechanisms of those entities.”

Ahem… You can read between the lines.

The fund, in fact, has become the underwriter of first resort for those Tory-friendly ventures that couldn’t pass Business Financing 101. Like the $350,000 it handed out to the already unable-to-pay-its-last loan Magic Valley amusement park, which just happened to be owned by good friends of our former premier. Or S&J Potato Farms, which leased land from the province’s development minister who — oops — had to resign after Daily News reporter Brian Flinn exposed his conflict of interest.

Those “investments” came after a pre-election, pre-leadership convention order-in-council quietly topped up the fund with $50 million. That had the one-fell-swoop effect of not only doubling the budget of the Office of Economic Development — without our elected representatives having any say in the matter — but also of providing the new premier with a convenient slush fund for pre-election vote-buying.

While he may not have been responsible for setting up the fund, MacDonald is very clearly responsible for what happens now — and for the obfuscation, stonewalling and obstruction his government is engaging in to prevent the all-party public accounts committee from getting to the bottom of this scandal.

Last week, the committee had to resort to issuing subpoenas after the government whited-out even the most basic information in documents about “the objective and financial impact of the top-up… to preserve cabinet confidentiality.” According to Brian Flinn’s account in the Daily News, “the government even suppressed a paragraph showing how the measure would help the Progressive Conservatives keep their 2003 election promises.”

Ah, yes, we have been down this road before. Too many times. Anyone for another chorus of “Out on the Mira”?

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