Well, yes, we’re still mad as hell and we’re apparently going to stay mad until the premier grovels abjectly before the TV cameras or is burned at the stake to appease the gods of wrath. Still, we should pause to admit that our fury has in fact had its effect and it’s huge.
It took a spectacular eruption of pent-up exasperation, but it finally struck home. When it did, last Tuesday, MLAs had trimmed off up to a million dollars a year in annual allowances, per diems and perks built up over the years. This, let us admit, is the good news in the piece and, if it sticks (we have to say that), possibly a transforming experience in our thick politics. And it seemed so easy — a few minutes of open meeting and voilà.
The $1,050 monthly allowance is gone, receipts will be required for other allowances, the per diem is down to $38 from $84 (I’m especially impressed with that one), cabinet ministers and the Speaker no longer are to be paid extra for chairing committees, and there could be limits on publicly funded MLA political advertising.
The kicker, however, is this: Expenses are to be posted online.
This is the potential game-changer in the bunch. The blow here is not merely against excess spending, but against the nebulous secrecy that spawned the no-rules arrangement that allowed expenses to go over the top to begin with. Once it gels, if the idea of less secrecy spreads – to other areas of public life, notably to municipalities – then we’ll be able to say that the actual political culture is changing. At last, I might add.
Hazy rules and secretive ways have been the more general malady in our politics to begin with, and this is what has given special fuel to this scandal.
Picking up from our auditor general, whose report of a month ago started the furor, the New Brunswick auditor general has started his own investigation. However, even if he comes up with much the same as in Nova Scotia, the uproar is likely to be much less. That’s because New Brunswick’s politics haven’t been broken for 25 years as ours have, which is the deeper root of our rage. New Brunswickers will look on it as a problem to be fixed, rather than as a shattering trauma.
We thought that after our radical leap to the NDP — a remarkable jump — all the old and broken stuff was fixed. Apparently it’s not. And although the NDP had the wagon rolling in the slow lane towards fixing it when the scandal broke, it wasn’t enough to damp down the public’s desire for a good hanging.
So, assuming that the problem is more or less fixed, what do we do with our civic ire which is still bubbling? Do we park it? The premier and the finance minister are saying that they have a government to run with some critical decisions to make and, expenses bust-up or not, things have to move forward. At the risk of being strung up with them, let me say that they’re right: There are other things to do. The public mood, however, is that any talk of serious business is just a dodge to elude the subject at hand.
The nub of the problem is that our threadbare faith in politics has been torn once again, and a poll would likely show a majority not trusting the parties — not just the government — to follow through. After all, some changes will require legislation and there are some dangling and complicated loose ends that take time — for example, the question of setting up an audit team to monitor expenses suggested by former Speaker Art Donahoe in his interim report. But now he’s off to sunny climes for two months, and his final report is put off to next summer.
So here’s what we do with our ire: We keep it at the ready to flare up again if it’s summer, things are drifting and everybody’s off on vacation again. In fact, if we could manage this biliousness properly, we could erupt again on other issues and at other levels — HRM for example. We might even give it another name: the democratic instinct — a thing that has been mostly dormant throughout our history, emerging occasionally and showing promise, then flaming out. Maybe we can take a run at making it stick this time.