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LETTER: Newfoundland and Labrador needs lose the loopholes, eject the escape clauses

The Confederation Building in St. John's, Newfoundland. — file
The Confederation Building in St. John's, Newfoundland. — file - SaltWire Network

Recently, we learned of a former deputy minister of natural resources who parted ways with government at an annual salary of $175,000 only to cash in on a very lucrative contract with this administration’s new pet project, Oilco, doing similar work, but for a compensation package of approximately $336,000 in annual salary — a $3,000 per month living allowance, not to mention tens of thousands of dollars in travel expenses between St. John’s and Scotland, where this gentleman now resides.

So how could this happen?

Shouldn’t there be some sort of cooling off period that would prevent someone that works for government from engaging in private business arrangements with the same employer they just left? Surely there must be legislation in place to address such matters.

Well, actually, there is and it’s entitled “An Act Respecting Standards of Conduct for Non-Elected Public Office Holders,” which provides for a one-year cooling-off period for former government employees before being permitted to enter into any kind of business arrangements with government.

And while that sounds great, there is a problem.

There is a clause contained within that legislation, an “escape clause” if you will, that states that in the case of deputy ministers, CEO’s of government boards and agencies and — get this — political staff, the cabinet can waive the one-year cooling-off requirement.

This is what happened in this most recent case and while it may not have been this administration that put this legislation in place, they certainly took advantage of it to the detriment of taxpayers.

Now, this is not the only “escape clause” contained within the legislative framework that governs our province.

These escape clauses are actually quite common and leave governments of all stripes with the ability and in their minds, the justification, to do whatever they want regardless as to whether it is in the public interest or not.

These escape clauses prevent openness and transparency, and create the conditions for nepotism, cronyism, and absolute conflicts of interest.

Just take the Elections Act as an example, which sets a fixed date for provincial elections every four years in order to give certainty and to prevent governments from aligning election calls with polling results, with good news announcements or to avoid bad news, in order to bolster their party’s chances when they go to the polls.

Problem is, as per the “escape clause,” the premier and cabinet can override the fixed date provision and go to the lieutenant governor at any time to call an election.

Then there’s this administration’s signature bill that was implemented to “take the politics out of appointments,” (excuse me for a second while I laugh) the Independent Appointments Commission. This involves the introduction of an independent panel and process for the appointment of individuals to government agencies, boards and commissions based on the merit principle.

Again, sounds great right? But thanks once again to the “escape clause” while the independent panel recommends three names for consideration for these positions, the minister has the ability to ignore all three recommendations, appointment whomever he/she wants, and the public will never be any the wiser.

I could go on and on as it relates to the Access to Information Act which exempts Nalcor from public disclosure under the auspices of “commercial sensitivity” with no mechanism for appeal though the privacy commissioner.

I could rant about legislation concerning numbered companies receiving money from government sources as well as the absolute farce which is “blind trusts.”

But I’ll leave those for another time.

I will conclude by saying this — all of these loopholes and escape clauses benefit those in power, their friends, associates and supporters, not the average citizen.

Whenever these escape clauses are put into use, it is ultimately the taxpayer that is on the hook and sadly, for them there is no escape.

Paul Lane, Independent MHA,
District of Mount Pearl-Southlands

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