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UCP critics face abuse now, unlike critics of Alberta PC housing allowances in 1992

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Jason Kenney in 2011. Photo: FAQMP Ichannel/Flickr

Public anger at politicians who bill taxpayers for their living expenses when in reality they live close to their work is nothing new in Alberta.

Abusive attacks on their critics, up to and including death threats, are new.

Back in April 1992, Progressive Conservative municipal affairs minster Dick Fowler, who was then the MLA for St. Albert, economic development minister Peter Elzinga, MLA for Sherwood Park, and Wetaskiwin-Leduc MLA Don Sparrow were discovered by enterprising journalists to have received tens of thousands of dollars in living expenses when their ridings were only about 30 minutes from the legislature.

In the 1990-91 fiscal year, the three MLAs together billed the Alberta legislature almost $60,000 for apartments in Edmonton, according to press reports. In 1991-92, Ministers Fowler and Elzinga together billed more than $40,000. Fowler's apartment was said to have been used by a family member who was attending the University of Alberta.

Their defence at the time? No rules were broken.

The public's reaction was not positive. But the journalists who uncovered the story and the taxpayer advocate who criticized the politicians relentlessly suffered nothing like the vituperation heaped upon Kyle Morrow, the Alberta-born Ottawa lawyer who used public records to show that while he was an MP, United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney declared his Ottawa condo to be his secondary residence, thereby qualifying for more than $10,000 a year in public housing subsidies.

Indeed, Morrow appears to have parted ways yesterday with the international law firm that employed him in Ottawa. His biography page has now disappeared from the website of Fasken LLP. He did not respond to a query about his employment status. This suggests a chilling message has been sent to anyone who opposes Kenney about what can happen if you open your mouth.

In the spring of 1992, by contrast, stories in the Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal gleefully reported that the Tory ministers were "living a double standard" when they accepted public subsidies for apartments they didn't need while the government said the province couldn't afford to help people living in poverty with the cost of decent housing.

The Alberta legislature's rules at the time allowed MLAs from outside Edmonton to bill more than $22,000 a year for living expenses in the city. No receipts were required.

The head of an organization then identified as the Association of Alberta Taxpayers (AAT) demanded an independent inquiry into the payments. Fowler and Elzinga were "their own worst enemies," he asserted.

"The poverty level in Edmonton is roughly $14,000 a year, and they're giving themselves $20,000 a year just to get by in Edmonton," he told the Edmonton Journal. "You can rent a top-level apartment in this town for $600 a month."

"It just destroys their credibility."

When Premier Don Getty, under pressure from an angry public, promised an investigation by the legislature's all-party Member Services Committee, the AAT leader scoffed, saying getting MLAs to investigate MLA expenses was like "asking the fox to guard the henhouse."

The way the subsidies were handed out, he told the Calgary Herald, "it's an incentive for the MLA to abuse it."

And who was the AAT spokesperson treated so respectfully by the Edmonton Journal's reporter, Joan Crockatt, herself later a one-term Conservative MP in Ottawa?

He was a young fellow named Jason Kenney!

Yeah, that Jason Kenney.

Kenney was never assailed by the Journal or the Herald for criticizing MLAs' housing subsidies, as Morrow was by Licia Corbella, and other "leftists" and "scandalmongers" were by Rick Bell. Corbella and Bell are both political columnists in Postmedia's now-combined Sun-Herald news operation in Calgary.

But that was then and this is now. In 1992, the Edmonton Journal and the Calgary Herald, where I then worked, were both excellent regional newspapers that covered events in a thoroughly professional manner.

Appearing on a CBC radio program on Tuesday, Kenney used the same defence for his Ottawa subsidies as Fowler and Elzinga did in 1992. "I was fully compliant with all the rules," he said. "That was confirmed for me by my pay and benefits adviser in the House of Commons administration."

Kenney also emphasized the UCP talking points now repeated robotically by media. "I'm sorry that all this has become politicized. My mom has been dragged into this. I thought I was doing the right thing …"

To receive the public subsidy, Kenney required the Calgary address to be his primary residence because House of Commons rules forbid MPs to rent their secondary residences from a relative, employee or House of Commons employee. The rules are silent on who must own their primary residence.

The three Tory ministers in 1992 were more contrite when they were being criticized by Kenney than Kenney is now. While no rules had been broken, their voters were outraged, and all three gave up their allowances soon after the stories appeared.

Stan Woloshyn, then the NDP MLA for Stony Plain, also minutes from Edmonton, grumbled that he would give up the allowance only until the committee had reported. However, Woloshyn solved his problems with angry voters by crossing the floor of the legislature the next year to join the Conservatives, in whose caucus he sat for 11 years.

As for Kenney's current protests that he has done nothing wrong -- indeed, that he was just looking out for his elderly parents and anyone who says otherwise is attacking his widowed mom -- one is reminded of the words of the 11th-century Persian astronomer and poet Omar Khayyam, as famously translated by Edward FitzGerald:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

There's no need to accuse Kenney of sanctimonious hypocrisy.

The man speaks for himself.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Photo: FAQMP Ichannel/Flickr

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