The thing about getting to the end of the last chapter is that it’s usually time to close the book, put it on a shelf somewhere or just generally forget about it.
On Friday, businessman John Hand got three years in prison for his part of the constituency allowance scandal — a role that could basically be described as finding a financial weak link in the House of Assembly, and exploiting that link to the tune of millions of dollars.
As he was being led away, Hand told reporters “I should have been a politician,” perhaps because all of the politicians who took the same kind of advantage of the same weak link — four of them, with representatives from every party in the House of Assembly — all received lesser sentences. At the same time, politicians right across the province probably gave a little sigh of relief, talking about looking at things on “a go-forward basis” and thinking that the sooner the constituency allowance scandal was history, the better.
But while the last court case was wrapping up and the media was calling the sentence the last chapter in a sordid affair, we were all missing the point.
In reality, we just got to the end of one slim chapter in a never-ending story — and that story is about greed and the abuse of government finances, whether it’s untendered consulting contracts handed out to political friends or a financially soothing personal ride on the government gravy train.
On the face of it, it’s a kind of victimless crime: the government has pots of money, and if no one’s minding the store, some of those pots get redirected.
If you look at the constituency allowance scandal as a whole, you notice an interesting pattern. Almost all of the abuse started small, and year after year, as nobody (except those doing the taking) noticed or realized, the size of the individual abuse grew.
New MHAs — far more than were ever charged — began submitting duplicate receipts, contradictory receipts, absolutely impossible-to-drive mileage claims, and sometimes, no receipts at all. And as those claims weren’t caught, the claims became even more outlandish.
By the time virtually every MHA in the House was accepting, apparently without question, $3,000 “bonus” cheques for expenses they’d never even spent, the die was pretty well cast. We had developed, or maybe a better word is “expanded,” a parliamentary tradition of sordid self-service.
There’s a simple message in that: no one should be above oversight, especially when they’re dealing with large pools of taxpayers’ money. And that story doesn’t end simply because the latest round of miscreants have aptly proven that point once again.
Hand may be on his way to prison, but right now, both the Senate and august members of the House of Commons argue that they don’t need full oversight of their expenses. There are, they say, enough internal safeguards in place. Strange: that was exactly what Newfoundland’s board of internal economy said when they were questioned over a decade ago about why they were keeping constituency allowance expenses secret, before the abuse began.
Oh, but we have private sector audits, the federal politicians cry.
All the time that this province’s constituency allowances were being looted by the honourable scum, those same accounts had private sector audits, too.
And look how well that turned out.
There are lots of reasons for removing controls like auditors, short-circuiting public tendering regulations or hiding things from view by altering access to information legislation. Some of those reasons make sense for a year or two — maybe the premier or prime minister of the day comes across as particularly trustworthy and unflinchingly honest when they suggested the normal rules of good government need not apply.
As we already know from bitter experience, other ministers right at the same cabinet table might not have the same scruples.
One thing is absolutely clear. Keep the trough open and full, and eventually the pigs will gather.
The unexamined life may not be worth living. But the unexamined expense account is worth millions.
Has been before, and will be again, for as many times as the voters allow it.
Russell Wangersky is the editorial page editor of The Telegram. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.