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EDITORIAL: Tighten the reins

If it’s too easy to access the cookie jar, perhaps it needs to be rendered tamper-proof. —
If it’s too easy to access the cookie jar, perhaps it needs to be rendered tamper-proof. — 123RF Stock Photo

Another day, another government expense scandal.

This time, it’s in in British Columbia, where a report into the conduct of two top legislature officials has exposed a litany of alleged abuses, from cash payments to bulk liquor shipments to tickets for 13 people to a major league baseball game. The report into the allegations is the stuff of fiscal fantasy; if all of the allegations are true, it shows a stunning lack of ethics.

Are you surprised?

Probably not.

(Well, the wood splitter was a surprise. It’s hard to imagine the gall needed to argue that the legislature needed a wood splitter in case a tree fell on the legislature grounds and the government needed emergency firewood — especially because the wood splitter was delivered to a private address.)

The idea that our legislators and officers of parliaments are necessarily above reproach is antiquated, foolish and wrong.

But the fact is that financial abuses by politicians and government officials have happened pretty much across the country. In Newfoundland and Labrador, taxpayers’ money was divided up and spread around to elected members to hand out in their constituencies. Not only that, but scores of politicians dipped into the funds for questionable alcohol purchases and other spending. There are still ex-politicians who haven’t paid back what they owe.

In Nova Scotia, 2010-11 had that province’s MLA expense scandal, where four MLAs were convicted of abuses.

Similar cases played out in Alberta, Saskatchewan, the federal Senate, and even Parliament —now, there are questions about whether Alberta politician and provincial United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney improperly claimed money to stay in Ottawa as a federal politician when he said his permanent residence was his parents’ Alberta retirement home.

There have been huge scandals in other countries, too — notably, Great Britain, where politicians appear to have believed that anything under the sun could be placed on the taxpayers’ tab.

Most of the time, the problems can be traceable back to two overarching problem: unclear and unenforceable rules, and an overall lack of credible oversight.

The truth of the matter is that,if you give people free rein over their own expenses, a certain number of them — larger than you might expect — will fill their pockets with foie gras, drink themselves stupid on single malt scotch, and argue all along to themselves that they have every right to do so.

The idea that our legislators and officers of parliaments are necessarily above reproach is antiquated, foolish and wrong.

Luckily, the solution is a clear one, though it can only handle where we go from here: make clear rules about what kind of expenses are legitimate and what kinds are not. Lay the rules out clearly to legislators and legislative officials, and stress that infractions won’t be swept under the carpet by the “good old boys.”

Don’t hesitate to send in the auditors. And sometimes, the police.

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