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Worth the cost? Nova Scotia's Parliamentarians

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Halifax member of Parliament, Megan Leslie

In the wake of the neverending senate expenses scandals, and in the lead-up to the 2015 federal election, we have seen and doubtless will continue to see, examinations of the cost of Canada's parliamentary democracy. This is, of course, as it should be. As citizens, we should be attentive to what the costs of our parliamentary democracy are. Are they reasonable and justified? Are they effective? Do they serve discernible and useful purposes?

The senate expenses scandal, and the many questionable and inflated costs of this archaic upper chamber, have served to underscore not only lax regulations, murky definitions, and inadequate supervision of what senators do and what they bill the Canadian public for, but the larger question of what this very sizeable investment (on the order of $90 million a year for a chamber of 105 deputies) yields in terms of value-added for Canadian democracy. And all this is apart from the larger question of why an unelected chamber of political bagmen, failed candidates, and party hacks -- often appointed for purely partisan purposes, and all too frequently concerned with fundraising for their respective parties -- who can delay, stymie, or even derail legislation passed by the elected chamber of Parliament, the House of Commons, should even exist. But I digress.

While Canadians should be attentive to the expenditures of our parliamentarians (Senators as well as Members of Parliament), such concern needs to be conducted on the basis of evidence and reason. On the basis of what the costs are and what purposes (useful and not; legitimate and not) they serve.  The apocryphal "bottom line" is not the only metric to pay attention to. Expenses of parliamentarians need to be seen in the context of the vital work that they do as elected officials representing Canadian citizens within the government of their country, determining its course, and communicating to the electorate about what they as parliamentarians are doing, and what is being done on behalf of citizens in the hallowed halls of Parliament.

Informing or Misleading?

An illustration of how not to proceed is provided by an article written by Andrea Gunn and published in The Chronicle Herald in Nova Scotia entitled "Megan Leslie Costliest MP in Nova Scotia." Based on data provided by the Canadian Parliament about the expenses of Members of Parliament, Gunn nominally sets out to examine the expenses of Nova Scotia MPs, producing (amongst other things) the graph pictured below (Figure 1).

Figure 1

(Note: Nova Scotia is a good jurisdiction to employ as a test case in an analysis of MP expenses given that it is represented by four Conservatives, four Liberals, and three New Democrats, a reasonably balanced mixture of all three main political parties.) 

What this charts shows is a simplified subset of data on the expenses of MPs for the 2014-2015 fiscal year (see Figure 2 below). Examining it we see that the budget of Halifax NDP MP Megan Leslie's office ($418,005) is the largest of the 11 Nova Scotia MPs. (Full disclosure: Megan Leslie is my Member of Parliament and a good friend.) It followed by West Nova Conservative MP Greg Kerr's office which clocks in at $403,128, all the way to Cumberland-Colchester Conservative MP Scott Armstrong's office, which spent $362,917. As far as this goes, these statistics are fact. However, this isn't critical investigative journalism -- it's cherry picking facts in a visually misleading fashion. 

Figure 2

What's the problem? First of all, the graph. Rather than showing the full range of values on the y-axis ($0 to $430,000), it shows only a truncated range between $350,000 and $430,000. This is a graphical technique to accentuate differences.For instance, in this graph the height of the bar of Megan Leslie's expenses ($418,005) is six times that Scott Armstrong's expenses ($362,917), whereas, in fact the office expenses of Leslie are only 15% greater than that of Armstrong, not 600% greater (see Figure 3 below).

Figure 3

Someone who is sophisticated in the reading of graphs, and who pays careful attention to the labeling of the y-axis, will not be mislead by this graphical device. However, someone casually looking at a story entitled "Megan Leslie Costliest MP in Nova Scotia" and/or who is not statistically literate could easily, although erroneously, draw the conclusion that Megan Leslie's office is spending six times what Scott Armstrong's office is. Given that the role of newspapers is to enlighten readers, one has to wonder why The Chronicle Herald would chose to present the information in such a way that readers might be easily mislead?

Evidence and Reason

The presentation of raw data isn't critical investigative journalism. To do the latter we need to dig deeper, undertaking an analysis that puts such statistics in a larger context. For instance, as the previous table (Figure 2) indicates, Megan Leslie's riding of Halifax is the most populous in the province with 73,357 constituents. By contrast, Liberal Roger Cuzner's riding of Cape Breton-Canso is the least populous with only 57,331 voters. With the largest constituency in the province to serve it might be reasonable to suppose that the expenses of Megan Leslie's office might be correspondingly greater. Thus, a better metric to evaluate MP expenses might be the cost per constituent.

If one plots these values (see Figure 4 below) one finds that Roger Cuzner's office is spending the largest amount of all Nova Scotia MPs, $6.79 per constituent. This is followed by Peter MacKay's office which spends $6.45 per constituent, all the way down to the most frugal, Halifax West Liberal MP Geoff Regan, whose office is spending $5.07 per constituent. Evaluated thus, the expenditures of Megan Leslie's office, at $5.70 per constituent, are just below the mean value of $5.75.  If one chose this measure of evaluating MP spending one could then write a headline that said, "Roger Cuzner Costliest MP in Nova Scotia," noting that all three NDP Nova Scotia MPs fall below the median level of spending.

Figure 4

Drilling Deeper

But blithe headlining isn't investigative journalism either. If you want to enlighten readers with a critical appraisal of what their elected representatives are doing, and how well they are doing it, one needs to drill even deeper.

The budgets of Members of Parliament are grouped into eight categories of expenditures:

1) Employee's salaries; 2) Service Contracts; 3) Travel (of MP, staff, and dependents), and accommodation, and per diems, and the cost of secondary residence expenses; 4) Hospitality; 5) Gifts; 6) Advertising; 7) Printing (for both "householders" and "ten-percenters"); and 8) Office Expenses (a large category that includes leases, equipment, services, repairs, postage, training, etc.). Below I examine in detail the expenses in five of these categories (The service contracts, hospitality, and gifts categories are all for small sums and vary relatively little between MPs).

Employee Salaries

Examining this category of expenses (see Figure 5 below) is revealing. The offices of the three NDP MPs lead the pack, the Liberals follow (except for outlier Mark Eyking of Sydney-Victoria) and the Conservatives all trail the pack. The obvious difference manifest here is that the NDP parliamentary staff are all unionized and receive better salaries and benefits. By contrast, the staff of Conservative MPs are the most poorly paid -- a difference that is seemingly illustrative of the different values of these political parties.

Figure 5

Travel

There is a significant range in "travel" expenses (recall that this broad budget category includes travel for a variety of individuals, and accommodations, per diems, and secondary residence costs) between MPs, from a high of $87,007 by Conservative MP Greg Kerr [Kerr's travel expenses include $19,046 for travel for his wife Marcia, a relatively large (37%) proportion of his travel budget], to a low of $51,865 for Liberal MP Geoff Regan (see Figure 6 below).

In the case of the expenses of some MPs such as Megan Leslie ($85,802) who is Deputy Leader of the NDP and Conservative Gerald Keddy  ($81,234), who is Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Agriculture, the Minister of National Revenue, and for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, their additional responsibilities beyond that of constituency MP might well entail more "travel" expenses than others. And indeed, they have the second and third largest personal travel budgets (including $43,615 in travel costs for Leslie herself and $36,715 for Keddy). 

Figure 6

Central Nova Conservative MP Peter MacKay, who is Minister of Justice, has the second lowest travel budget ($56,047), which consists of relatively little travel for MacKay ($19,838) but a large amount ($28,000) for his secondary residence in Ottawa. Indeed the proportion of his travel budget actually spent on travel for MacKay himself (35.4%) and not on staff, dependents, per diems, accommodations and secondary residence is the lowest of any Nova Scotian MP (followed by Conservative Greg Kerr at 42.2%). Meanwhile, Liberal MP Scott Brison spends the largest proportion (59.7%) of his travel budget on travel for himself, followed by NDP MP Peter Stoffer (58.0%). In the case of MacKay, what travel he undertakes as Minister of Justice is covered by his ministerial budget and he would appear to be the Nova Scotian MP who travels least between Ottawa and his home riding.

Figure 7

An sub-category of "travel" that is worth attention is per diems, a "soft" area of expenses which includes essentials such as food and toiletries, but that can accommodate other 'creature comforts' ($16 glasses of orange juice anyone?). Figure 7 above shows what these costs are. There is no clear partisan delineation. The graph exhibits a mixed sequence of Conservative, Liberal, and NDP members. The two highest spenders are Conservative Gerald Keddy ($12,493) and Liberal Roger Cuzner ($10,565), both over $10,000. New Democrat Robert Chisholm ($3,616) and Conservative Peter MacKay ($0!) are the most frugal (N.B. One assumes that MacKay is simply not submitting per diem receipts; it hardly seems plausible that he doesn't eat or brush his teeth …). 

Advertising

As a general pattern (see Figure 8 below) Conservative MPs spend the most in advertising; Liberals are in the mid range [again, except for outlier, Liberal Mark Eyking of Sydney-Victoria, who at $27,718 spends the most of any MP; and also Liberal MP Scott Brison of Kings Hants whose spending at $4,123 is near the bottom of the pack]; and New Democrats are near the bottom of the spectrum. The one notable exception to the pattern, however, is Central Nova MP Peter MacKay who spends almost nil ($11 in 2014-2015 -- what sumptuous advertising did he purchase for this princely sum?) on advertising.

Figure 8

Eyking's advertising budget is almost two and a half times the average ($11,606) in this category. What does he purchase? The budget summaries available from the Parliament of Canada do not provide details. Scott Armstrong, the Conservative MP for Cumberland-Colchester also spends a hefty amount ($23,155) on advertising, twice the average of Nova Scotia MPs.

Printing

There is no clear partisan delineation with respect to printing costs (i.e., for "householders" and "ten-percenters"). The top two MPs in this category are New Democrats (Megan Leslie and Robert Chisholm), followed by two Conservatives, followed by two Liberals, followed by two more Conservatives, followed by a New Democrat, with two Liberals (roger Cuzner and Scott Brison) trailing the pack (see Figure 9 below).

Figure 9

However, examining these categories of communications spending in isolation is not that incisive since the category of printing expenses is part of an MP's overall outreach strategy. Some MPs chose to emphasize communication with constituents via advertising, others via materials through the mail (i.e., through "householders" and "ten-percenters"), or a mixture of both. This also reflects certain political values (i.e., communicating more individually with constituents via letters or simply deploying advertising at them). The scale of and MPs communications efforts is instructive as well as (perhaps), the political necessity of doing so. Consequently, combining these two categories is more incisive and produces the results shown in Figure 10 below.

Figure 10

Again, there is no clear partisan pattern apparent in communications. What is interesting is the overall difference in the scale of communication efforts. The top three spenders (Conservative Scott Armstrong at $50,092; Liberal Mark Eyking at $42,291; and New Democrat Robert Chisholm at $41,544) are all spending in excess of $40,000 (indeed, Armstrong is spending in excess of $50,000). They represent members of all three political parties.

On the other hand, the three lowest spenders (also representing all three political parties) are Scott Brison at $12,545; New Democrat Peter Stoffer at $12,120; and Conservative Peter MacKay at $11,409; all of whom are spending less that $13,000. There is almost a five-fold difference between the lowest (MacKay) and highest (Armstrong) spenders. Are Brison, Stoffer, and MacKay sufficiently secure in their seats that they feel they can spare the necessity and expense of communications efforts? All three are long-serving MPs, 18-year veterans first elected to the House of Commons in 1997.

In contrast, Chisholm was first elected as an MP in 2011 in Dartmouth (edging Liberal Mike Savage by 497 votes, a mere 1.15% of the turnout); Armstrong was elected in 2009 in a landslide taking an absolute majority of 52.46% of the turnout. Eyking has been an MP since 2000, however, in the 2011 federal election he won by edging Conservative Cecil Clarke by 765 votes, 2.06% of the turnout. Does this large spending for communications indicate that if you are a new kid on the block you have go the extra mile? Or, if you only won by a slender margin do you feel you have to work that much harder? It certainly looks that way.

Office Expenses

Finally there are office expenditures per se (see Figure 11 below). Again, there is no clear partisan pattern in this category of mostly prosaic expenses (lease of premises, furniture, equipment, telecommunications services, repairs, postage, materials, supplies, training). Members of different political parties alternate. Conservative Peter MacKay's office costs lead the pack at $51,962, while New Democrat Peter Stoffer runs the thriftiest outfit at $32,822, 63% of MacKay's cost.

Figure 11

Parting Shots

As this article indicates there are useful insights to be gleaned from analyzing the budgets of parliamentarians in terms of what they are doing, how effective their strategy may be, and the political values that they may have. How effective are their communications efforts? Why are they undertaking them? What is the scale of this initiative? Are their "travel" budgets" actually being used for the travel of the MP, or are substantial portions going to the travel of others, for per diems, or for accommodations in Ottawa? How well-paid are their staff?

What is important, is to bring a comparative, critical appraisal to such an analysis. Cherry picking data, a lack of critical thinking, and questionable graphics do not do justice to the effort. They mislead readers rather than informing them.

Finally, it's important to emphasize that frugality and austerity are not the sole axes of critical appraisal of budgets. It would be very easy for an MP to keep their expenditures to an absolute minimum -- simply by doing next to nothing. Having minimal staff, undertaking next to no communications, renting cheap office space, and seldom travelling to their ridings would certainly greatly minimize expenses. But would their constituents -- and Canadian democracy -- be well-served by such a stratagem?  It's important to intelligently appraise the work of our Members of Parliament and understand if what they are doing is worthwhile and effective. If it is valuable, then the expenses incurred in the process are more than worth it. Elected representatives that work hard are worth their weight in gold. If their work is dross, then whatever costs they incur -- meagre or major -- are immaterial. They should be sent to the recyclers.

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

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