I’ve been tweeting the hell out of the MLA expense story. I hesitate to call it a scandal, because political scandals tend to get saddled with the suffix “gate” and this has always been a cause of aesthetic concern for me. But make no mistake about it, some of the spending has been scandalous.
My friends are moderately split on the subject. Some of them think this is a tempest in a teapot that diverts our attention from the more important issues of housing, education, health, and the Olympics. These friends make a solid point. One that is being endlessly reiterated by Finance Minister Graham Steele, now touring the province on a push-poll “consultation” with Nova Scotians designed to justify an HST increase. Mr. Steele tells us the MLA money we are talking about amounts to a “drop in the bucket”. A few tens of thousands of dollars, and our focus on it is terribly distracting from the bigger picture. A few of my friends, and Mr. Steele, are right about that. This is just chump change.
My other friends think that it was their chump change, and that makes them chumps, and it was their MLAs who made them that way. They also have a good point. Most of my friends are fairly politically savvy. They may not be the compulsive wonks that dwell in my house but they stay in touch and they make informed opinions. They recognize that it isn’t all MLAs who turned them into chumps. They believe that most MLAs are hard working and honest people who want nothing but the best for their constituents. They also believe that Ghandi himself would have gone wild with an unchecked expense account. The opinion of our representatives from the Nova Scotian electorate at large seems considerably less forgiving.
A well known finance minister – then revelling in the glorious and unaccountable outrage that is Opposition – once came and spoke to a political science class I was taking. In politics, he told us, it doesn’t matter what is true, it matters what people think is true. Graham Steele, who is constantly telling us to forget about this, should talk to that guy. Because the Nova Scotian electorate thinks he, and hs 51 counterparts, are criminals or just shy of it. Graham Steele knows that’s not true, just like I do. Unfortunately, the electorate is just not as forgiving as I am and anyway – it doesn’t matter what is true.
MLA expenses are more symbolically than materially important. They represent a selfish mismanagement of public resources by the people who promised to do exactly not that if only we’d vote for them. Naively, we voted for them and expected more. But fewer and fewer of us are falling victim to that patrticular naivte, and so fewer and fewer of us are voting. I have heard and read comments on this story from voters calling for a boycott on voting. Clearly, boycotting voting is the avoidance of, rather than the solution to, the problem, but this does not change that sense of further disefranchisement in voters. Such a boycott may not present a problem for the entrenched MLAs who could benefit from fewer outraged voters venturing to the ballot box, but it is potentially disastrous for our democracy.
The government can take steps to deter this disaster, if Darrell Dexter ever returns to Nova Scotia. These steps should include, but not be limited to: determining a just and open process of MLA compensation, opening the books completely on MLA expenses, changing the rules to make MLAs more accountable, and telling Graham Steele to think twice every time he wants to tell us to stop talking about this.