Premier Wade MacLauchlan
Premier Wade MacLauchlan glossed over several key points last week during his spirited and lengthy defence of monthly payments to government backbenchers — payments related to their work as MLAs. He vigorously defended the $300 monthly allotment paid to private members on the government side of the legislature, describing them as “legitimate reimbursements.”
After meeting with his caucus Friday, the premier gave an interview to discuss those backbench expenses, obviously feeling confident there was nothing improper done by Liberal members.
It’s likely the premier grilled his caucus about any possible skeletons and feeling reasonably reassured, declared the payments legitimate.
The premier expressed his hope that Islanders recognize these payments as legitimate reimbursements for expenses. Well, Mr. Premier, until several weeks ago, there was almost no knowledge in the public arena these monthly payments even existed.
It was a former Liberal cabinet heavyweight who said the expenses were jokingly referred to as a “slush fund.” The term makes the premier cringe but that is a perception among members of the public.
Naturally, taxpayers are scratching their heads about this secretive budget item — amounting to over $200,000 a year.
That’s because it is not currently disclosed to the public and is exempt from release under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
Those payments are made without the requirement of receipts. An MLA need only declare in the broadest of terms the expenses were incurred for travel, meals or other work expenses and the bill is paid.
No one else gets away with this kind of loose accounting. MLAs are supposed to lead by example and this is going in the opposite direction.
Premier MacLauchlan has to tighten up the rules on this fund. MLAs must provide receipts and in instances where none are issued, he or she must detail the expenses — i.e. cost of a ticket or a donation made to a local fundraiser.
There was an egregious case where the Opposition expense fund was raided by several party officials to make payments to a former chief of staff. Most caucus members were unaware of the payments and suddenly the PC caucus office was left with a bare cupboard.
So, not only is there the potential for abuse because of weak accounting protocols, it has actually happened. Maybe not on the government side, but the premier just can’t say his team didn’t mess up so all is well.
Details about the fund were so alarming that Auditor General Jane MacAdam says she is considering investigating. It seems the premier, who should be encouraging an audit for the sake of transparency and accountability, is trying to deter the auditor general by defending these extra payments. The premier has even suggested the auditor general may not have the legal right to investigate the monthly fund.
All MLAs should take a lesson from Green Party Leader Peter Bevan-Baker who is voluntarily posting all expenses from his office, including hospitality, donations and office supplies.
It’s taxpayers’ money and they have every right to see how it is spent. Obviously, in most cases, the claims are legitimate.
But that should be up to Islanders to decide. The expenses should be open for scrutiny but all we have from the premier is that his side didn’t screw up.
The premier is deferring the matter to the Standing Committee on Legislative Management, which oversees the work of the legislative assembly.
The committee will discuss the issue at an upcoming meeting and decide whether MLA expenses should be disclosed to the public.
The premier has requested the committee to follow suit on full disclosure, which now already applies to cabinet ministers and senior government officials.
Liberals hold a majority on the committee so the result should be a foregone conclusion. But so far, this has not happened.
The premier could also simply order his backbench MLAs to post expenses online — much like Mr. Bevan-Baker has already done — which would then force all MLAs to follow suit. But that hasn’t happened either.
Premier MacLauchlan’s position on this matter is surprising and disappointing.