Friday, July 16, 2010

Chong’s big meal claim and MLAs’ sense of entitlement

It’s not really Ida Chong’s fault. She’s a cultural victim.
The minister for health living and sport ran into a storm of criticism when the Times Colonist reported she claimed almost $6,000 in meal allowances last year – while living a few miles from the legislature.
All MLAs can claim a $61 a day for meals when the legislature is sitting or they are in Victoria or Vancouver on government business. (If they live outside the capital, they can also claim up to $19,000 a year to rent or buy a place in the capital.) The capital city allowance, it’s called.
Chong, the public accounts revealed, claimed $5,921 in meal expenses — about 98 days worth. Even though she lives about 10 kilometres from the legislature. And the legislature only sat for 60 days out of the year,
Pack a lunch like the rest of us, angry voters said, especially when your government is cutting programs and telling people belt-tightening is needed.
Chong argued all MLAs collected similar amounts. (Unfortunately for her, Murray Coell, her neighbour and fellow cabinet minister, undermined that defence by claimed $1,321.)
And she said, correctly, that the meal claims were within the rules.
Which raises two underlying issues.
First, the rules are remarkably generous. Most employers reimburse reasonable expenses when people travel on business. But they don’t usually give you $61 for food if you have a long day at the office. MLAs don’t have to provide receipts. If they buy a $6 sandwich for lunch and a $10 pizza for supper, they can still claim the full $61.
It’s not just the expense claims. MLAs have increased their base pay by 34 per cent in the last five years to $99,000. Most get extra money for various roles. Cabinet ministers, like Chong, are paid $152,000.
But the average wage in B.C. rose about 12 per cent in the same period.
MLAs also voted to give themselves a generous pension plan, with taxpayers picking up a large part of the cost.
But only 25 per cent of British Columbians have any workplace pension plan. The majority of taxpayers are paying for a good pension plan for MLAs while they have no plan of their own.
The gap between the rulers and the ruled has widened.
The examples are striking. MLAs think they need up to $19,000 for a part-time home in Victoria. But the government expects a disabled person income assistance to find accommodation for less than $4,500 a year. Perhaps MLAs need nicer places than someone with a disability — but four times as nice?
Chong’s $6,000 in meal claims is twice the income assistance provided to a single person for all living expenses, except rent, for an entire year. It’s five times the monthly income of someone working at minimum wage.
The disparities suggest MLAs have a high opinion of their value and importance — and a low opinion of their constituents’ worth.
Second, MLAs’ sense of entitlement is showing. Just because the rules allow a $61-a-day claim doesn’t mean they have to grab the money. MLAs could submit expenses that reflect what they actually paid for food. At incomes of $100,000 and up, they could opt to pay for their own lunches.
Chong is not an exception. Her claims were revealed because cabinet ministers’ expenses are reported as part of the public accounts.
The five New Democrat MLAs from the capital region have rallied around Chong and — appallingly — refused to say how much they claimed for expenses. Taxpayers are paying the bills, but according to the New Democrats, it’s none of their business what the cost is.
Which suggests that the claims are high and raises real concerns about the kind of accountability and openness an NDP government would provide.
No one should begrudge MLAs an adequate income. But many people are rightly angry at this casual excess.
Footnote: The latest pay and benefit increases followed the recommendations of a three-person review panel appointed by the premier. But the trio included a senior labour relations lawyer, a former B.C. Supreme Court justice back in private practice and a University of B.C. business professor. Their average income was likely north of $250,000, shaping their perspectives.
For more than 20 years, the State of Washington has had a 16-person salary commission to deal with pay for elected officials. A member is selected at random from the voters' list in each of nine geographical areas. The politicians appoint five members — one each from universities, business, professional personnel management, the law and organized labour. The state's HR department and universities get to name one person each.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

When MLAs behave badly

A good editorial in the Times Colonist today on Ida Chong's big meal-expense claims, the NDP's refusal even to reveal how much its MLAs claim under the capital city allowance and Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett's substitution of abuse for discussion.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Assault with a deadly bubble

I have been genuinely impressed with the way police in the capital region have handled protests at the legislature. The emphasis always seem to be on avoiding needless confrontations, while ensuring a quick response is available if required.
And it has worked like a darn.
Perhaps they could offer consulting services to other forces to avoid ridiculous confrontations and arrests, like the one shown on this video from the G20 summit.
Which of course is made more ridiculous by the failure to take action against the small number of vandals who smashed things at the summit.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Hitting peak support, New Democrats talk leadership change

There's something weird in the fact that some New Democrats are musing about a leadership change while Liberals maintain a discrete silence about their meltdown.
Gordon Campbell's party is reviled over the HST and its performance has been stumbling.
An Angus Reid Public Opinion poll released this week found Liberal support has been halved since the May 2009 election. The party has the support of 23 per cent of decided voters. That's heading down to the levels of NDP support before voters elected just two New Democrats in the 2001 election.
Meanwhile, the NDP support stands at 46 per cent, up from 42 per cent in the election last year. The Greens are at 14 per cent and the B.C. Conservatives at eight per cent - not bad for a party that doesn't really exist yet.
But an online straw poll on the Georgia Straight website found 87 per cent support for dumping James and getting a new NDP leader before the next election.
The theory is apparently that the party could have more support and a bigger lead in the polls with a different leader.
It's an oddly self-destructive approach for the party.
If the New Democrats can hold this level of the support until the next election, they will have matched their best ever performance at the polls. (The NDP under Dave Barrett took 46 per cent of the support in 1979.)
And an election today would result in an NDP government with a comfortable majority.
That's not to give rave reviews to the party's performance under James. The HST debacle has been a gift to the New Democrats. And given the extent of the public anger, it's hard to raise other issues.
But the party hasn't effectively raised concerns about other issues, from school closures to cuts to people with disabilities to struggling rural economies.
Still, Campbell's approval rating plummeted to 28 per cent in a May Mustel Group poll, with 61 per cent of those polled saying he was doing a bad job. James had 40 per cent approval and 28-per-cent disapproval.
And an Angus Reid poll in April found Campbell brought to my mind arrogance (72 per cent); secretiveness (56 per cent); dishonest (55 per cent); uncaring (51 per cent); and out of touch (49 per cent).
James ranked highest for compassion (45 per cent); down to earth (40 per cent); weak (38 per cent); inefficient (35 per cent); and openness (33 per cent).
Not stellar, to be sure.
And it's a given, unless the Liberals have lost all touch with reality, that the NDP will face a new leader in 2013.
Assuming that everyone in the current Liberal ranks - certainly in cabinet - is disqualified because of the HST taint, that opens the door to a fresh start for the party. (The names of Carole Taylor, Surrey Mayor Diane Watts and ex-Liberal cabinet minister Christy Clark are most frequently mentioned.)
But still, the NDP is doing awfully well in the polls. Dumping the leader would be disruptive and divisive.
And there is no guarantee that a successor would have any greater appeal and the risk that whoever was selected would be less attractive to voters.
B.C. New Democrats always seem to like a good internal fight; it's one of the party's least useful, most destructive qualities.
And the NDP's ideological purists often appear determined to keep the party far enough to the traditional ''left' positions that a noble defeat is the almost certain election outcome.
A leadership challenge now would likely convince a lot of voters that the New Democrats just don't want to govern.
James and the New Democrat MLAs can do a better job. They need, among other things, to build confidence in their ability to govern and bring economic growth rather than just criticize.
But the notion that this is a good time for a leadership change - when the party's support matches its highest-ever popular vote in an election - is odd.
Footnote: The Angus Reid poll found 75 per cent of British Columbians would vote to abolish the HST in a referendum if one is held. Almost 50 per cent would definitely sign a recall petition and 18 per cent would probably sign.