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Posts Tagged ‘Darrell Dexter’

Breaches of Trust

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

May 16, 2010

Now that the Dexter government has brought in regulations to cover MLA expenses, I confess that I never really understood why the issue generated such flaming pillars of indignation.

True, the questionable expenses identified by the Auditor-General revealed a deplorable fat-cat mindset among MLAs of all three parties. But, as others have noted, the $73,500 spent on big-screen TVs, high-end cameras, office furniture, espresso-makers and other baubles amounted to just .00045% of provincial spending during the three years that were audited. And the expenditures weren’t generally illegal, just ill-considered.

To put it in perspective, if your household income is $50,000 a year the Nova Scotian average then the equivalent loss would be $22.50. It’s as if your kid had taken your old electric drill without permission, and lost it. You might give him a scandalizing — to use the good old Nova Scotia word — but you wouldn’t spend six months frothing and fulminating about it.

Yet that’s exactly what the editors and commentators did. At the same time, with few exceptions, they blithely overlooked a genuine scandal involving 700 times as much money, namely the systemic mismanagement of public-private partnership arrangements in the province’s schools. In that same report, the Auditor-General identified $52 million in losses on those contracts.

And the school contracts are about much more than money. They’re also about the safety and well-being of children. Employees at P3 schools were found to be inadequately trained — they lacked CPR and first-aid qualifications — and their backgrounds had not always been checked with the criminal or child-abuse registries. That’s an authentic scandal, which genuinely puts people at risk, but we heard precious little about it. Nor have we heard much — now or ever — about the other corporate welfare programs that cost us millions under the guise of tax holidays, incentives, payroll rebates and other giveaways.

So why did the MLA expense issue make commentators and citizens so furious?

Two things, I think. First, for most people there comes a point when large numbers cease to have meaning and simply become “a lot.” The mind slides away from enormous numbers like an ice-cube off a stovetop. Fifty-two million, five hundred million, five billion, who can understand such figures?

But we understand four laptop computers, or a $3000 TV set, or $8000 for a generator. And that’s stuff we want ourselves. (Actually, I don’t entirely understand that $8000 generator. I bought a pretty decent one for $700. Where does Richard Hurlburt shop?) In any case, we do understand $8000. We know how hard it is to earn that much. And so, paradoxically, we find it easier to get outraged about $8000 than about $52 million.

The other factor is a general sense of betrayal about our institutions and our leaders. Bankers, once the model of prudence and sobriety, now play craps with the world’s economy and demand that taxpayers bail them out. Members of Ottawa’s law ‘n’ order government allegedly cavort with cocottes and cocaine. Plagiarists infest the New York Times. The auto industry holds governments to ransom. The Commissioner of the RCMP pervaricates to Parliament. Trusted financial advisers steal client funds. The Roman Catholic hierarchy smells worse every week. And by some loopy logic, the government of Nova Scotia — in the middle of the MLA brouhaha — restores the title of “Honourable” to convicted fraudster Billy Joe MacLean.

Ye gods.

A year ago, Nova Scotians elected the NDP not because a wave of socialist fervour had swept through Nappan and Coddles Harbour, but because Nova Scotians were sick of governments they considered incompetent, self-serving and untrustworthy. Six months later they were furious to discover that MLAs from the new crowd, as well as the old, had been vigorously milking the public teat all along.

To sell your soul for a kingdom is grand opera. To sell it for an espresso-maker is farce. But now, having seen the issue dealt with, can we reclaim our sense of proportion? Yes, the MLAs snuck a pint of milk. But the proponents of P3 prisons, highways and convention centres are after the whole cow. Can we now pay attention to that?

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Living to see the day…

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

JULY 5, 2009

“Mr. Premier,” I said.

I have not spoken two words with such relish since Marjorie and I said “I do” at our wedding. Darrell Dexter had been Nova Scotia’s 27th Premier for about an hour. In the cavernous Cunard Centre, I had lined up with dozens of others to congratulate him.

“Mr. Premier,” I said, “I just want to thank you for finally bringing this wonderful party to government.”

“Thank you very much,” said the grinning Premier. Then he said, as he tends to do at such moments, “but you know, I stand on the shoulders of all those people who went before me, and who put so much effort into making this possible.”

“Of course,” I said. “Nevertheless, you’re the person who finally carried the ball across the goal line.”

As the Premier said, the 2009 election was indeed the culmination of decades of effort by thousands of Nova Scotians, and many were in the hall. I had just met a retired coal miner from Glace Bay who remembered all the towering figures of Cape Breton politics J.B. MacLachlan, Clarie Gillis, Father Andy Hogan, Mickey MacDonald. He was 90 years old. “I never thought I’d live to see this day,” he said. That was the evening’s mantra.

I also saw Shirley Macnamara and Clair Rankin. Shirley ran several times for the NDP in Richmond County back in the 1970s, when I was president of the local NDP association and also a member of the party’s provincial council. I had recruited Clair to the NDP, and he had run three times in Richmond, including this time. We shook hands and hugged. We never thought we’d live to see this day.

Going into the election, I had not dared to hope for an NDP majority. I would have been delighted with a slender minority. I had lived through too many heart-breaking elections 1978, 1988, 1999 to have very high expectations. And that lack of expectation is a key to the character of the party.

Most New Democrats joined a party that they believed in, but that had no hope of forming a government. Those members often embraced ideas that were fringe concerns at the time, but contained the seeds of the future feminism, environmentalism, civil libertarianism, the eradication of racism and so on. The party was not a communion of saints indeed, it was often quite fractious but its members preferred a party obsessed by principles to parties obsessed by power. Its candidates ran, often repeatedly, without any expectation of winning, much less of forming a government. (They never thought they’d live to see the day.)

But as Marilla Stephenson noted in one of the most perceptive comments of the recent campaign when the NDP does capture a seat, it rarely surrenders it. Typically, the first victory is a squeaker, and then the vote totals just pile up. Look at Agriculture Minister John MacDonell, who won Hants East in 1998 by 798 votes, and retained it four times by steadily increasing margins. This year he won by 4542, capturing 65% of the vote.

The result of many such victories is a strong caucus. Premier Dexter could easily find another good Cabinet among the members he omitted members like Leonard Preyra, Michele Raymond, Howard Epstein, Pam Birdsall. Indeed, one of the Premier’s major challenges will be to make productive use of all the talent on his backbenches.

As with the seats, I suspect, so with the province. I have been a New Democrat for decades because I really think that the NDP’s vision and values closely match those of Nova Scotians. New Democrats deeply believe that society is as much about co-operation and mutual aid as it is about competition. So do Nova Scotians, who think it’s natural to respond to a house fire, an exotic illness or a breadwinner’s death by holding a benefit at the fire hall to raise money for the afflicted. The NDP commitment to medicare, pensions, unemployment insurance, various supports for families and communities what is that, if not a political expression of the tradition of mutual support that we see in communities all over the province?

The first NDP government in Atlantic Canada. At last. And truly, it’s just the beginning.

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