Saturday, March 03, 2007

Now more than ever: A public inquiry

I have been ruthlessly consistent on one matter since this mess at the House of Assembly started to unfold - we need a public inquiry. And I still strongly believe we need one. In fact, I believe that today even more than ever, in spite of the fact that virtually every sitting politician and many of the local pundits pooh pooh the idea.


For one thing, there is a general misunderstanding, fostered by the government handling of this affair and then echoed by otherwise skeptical pundits (most notably Randy Simms, I'm sorry to say) that all these different events are separate and unrelated.

Government has treated and sold the different components of House of Assembly misbehaviors (an IEC run amok, overspent constituency allowances, misspending at staff-owned trinket companies etc) as if they had nothing to do with each other. Government's response of setting up separate and discreet mechanisms of investigation independent of each other has reinforced this illusion.

So while Justice Green examines compensation issues, the AG uncovers IEC bad judgment and the police look at gross overspending, who's tying all these matters together? And are they all tied together?

You bet they are tied together and don't ever let anybody tell you otherwise. Theses and other matters are tied together in three distinct ways.

First, it has been little acknowledged that the House of Assembly and related staff and the location where they all work is really a very very small place, physically and in numbers of people.

The number of people with decision making powers on the IEC would total far less than a dozen people over the 10 years these shenanigans went on. And the IEC is the body which approved spending as it went along and then later approved the substance of the accounts after the fact.

This puts the IEC at the center of each and every scandal revealed so far. And it was not one IEC that overlooked the sales to staff-owned firms and another which presided over gross constituency allowance overspending. It was, essentially, the very same IEC which had largely the same representatives (Byrne, Sullivan, Rideout, Parsons, Tulk and others) for remarkably very long periods of time.

Second, it is a very small set of staff which overlooked all the financial aspects of the House of Assembly. Any staff allegedly involved in malfeasance are the very same staff which advised the IEC that it would have been OK to take more money from one line item to their own pockets. In fact, it would have been the same staff overlooking the books at the AG who could have advised the IEC that it was OK to threaten a budget cut if the AG's office didn't come into line.

These staff were important advisers to the IEC on House financial affairs and we cannot assume that their advice was not tainted and disinterested.

Because the staff is so small, so prominent within that organization, so consistent over long periods of time and thereby so close to their political masters, the line between them blurs. The idea that politicians were victims of a heartless system (a la Kathy Goudie) is self-serving to put it most charitably.

Finally, this is a tangly mess in which many the players overlap the many different individual scandal items. That's because that's the kind of place the institution of the House of Assembly is: close, tight-knit across party lines and staff-politician lines, incestuous and clearly out of touch with the real world.

A culture of fundamental self-interest has developed within this small family of staff and politicians and it has harmed the practice of politics, democracy and public policy for the province as a whole. To make the case that all these items of poor judgment or potential criminal action are unrelated and separate is to draw artificial and arbitrary lines which are pure and convenient fiction.

So it is little surprise that the best the Liberal caucus can come up with after several days is the considered opinion that:
"Finally, with respect to the issue of holding a public inquiry into the operations of the House of Assembly. Our caucus feels that this may be a valid process, however, we feel that consultation should take place with the Auditor General and Chief Justice Derek Greene to figure out whether they feel a public inquiry would access additional information and assist in their ongoing activities. There needs to be a definitive goal as to what this inquiry could accomplish, and we feel that both the Auditor General and the Chief Justice would be in the best situation to judge whether this inquiry would be of benefit and provide new information to the general public."
In other words, a public inquiry if necessary but not necessarily a public inquiry. And even then we think it's a good idea only if others already do.

Way to go.

Clearly the Liberal caucus have decided to take themselves out of the game on this issue and it's just as well. Their suggestions on reforms going forward are fine as far as they go but on the issue of what has happened so far they close ranks with their colleagues on the other side.

Most offensive is Tory Caucus Chair Bob Ridgley's response to the Liberal proposals that “This is almost akin to asking the foxes to have a meeting to discuss security at the henhouse,” and his insistence that that the decision to kick the auditor general out of the legislature was made during the Tobin years, when there was a majority of Liberal MHAs on the IEC.

This flys in the face of the record which clearly shows that there were also two Tory members on the IEC when that happened and that the law change confirming the decision to eject the auditor general passed the legislature unanimously.

There is plenty of blame to go around.

The problem is that government and opposition have been more concerned day after day with "managing the issue" through various forms of damage control and in throwing the responsibility to to any shoulders than their own than getting to the bottom of the matter.

Why has the Premier been so intent on a policy of containment? He has to be given the credit for bringing in the AG in the first place (no doubt against the wishes of some of his most senior ministers - Ed Byrne for one) but I have no doubt that he had no idea of the magnitude of what was going on.

On that basis, credit only goes so far.

It is in the responses to allegations where credit is earned and so far his response ha been a mixed bag. As the information comes out, the premier himself finds himself in a conflict between getting to the bottom of the matter and sacrificing one senior minister after another who was at the center of IEC decisions (Byrne, Sullivan, Rideout et al) on one hand and the simple preservation of his administration's ability to govern on the other.

As revelations continue to be released (and make no mistake, there will be many more to come), Premier Williams is running out of fingers to stick in the dike, if he hasn't already.

In any case, the Premier is no longer a disinterested revealer of past events before his time and has not been for a while. When the bonus payments were revealed, for example, Premier Williams himself waffled on what he knew and when he knew it.

And let's not even mention the fact that Sullivan had the AG's report on these secret bonuses, which he approved as a member of IEC, on his desk when he decided to resign.

Funny he never mentioned that on his way out.

It's time to take all of this mess out of the hands of the politicians. The Liberal caucus has firmly passed the buck to others in an astonishing display of political cowardice and self-interest so their opinions on this matter have to be taken for what they truly are - irrelevant.

Government and Premier Williams have to break the mindset that these are issues to be managed and wake up to the fact that these are matters to be untangled in a systematic, objective, disinterested and comprehensive public inquiry so we can all find out who made what decisions when and who knew about it so this kind of thing can't happen again and those persons and institutions responsible are identified .

We deserve that; it's our money.

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