When the news first broke that Ed Byrne had been asked to step down by Premier Danny Williams, it was came as quite the bombshell. He had the political image of being hard working, trustworthy and dedicated, where upon hearing the news, one might say, "Say it ain't so Ed!" If anyone were going to be honest in government it just might be Ed Byrne. But it appears that the former Minister of Natural Resources was one of 46 current MHA's who at some point unquestionably took money from the public purse. He was one of 5 current and former MHAs to overspend their constituency allowences. The others include Wally Anderson, Randy Collins, Jim Walsh and Percy Barrett. There are over 140 MHAs who may have been involved from the mid 1990's to 2004.
The public always seem to be suspicious of politicians in general because of other scandals nationally, provincially and historically since Canada became a nation. Newfoundland & Labrador is not the first or only province or political body to have political scandals. But now respect for elected officials is likely at an all time low, and only a couple of key figures come out untainted, Premier Williams, and particularly former Auditor General Elizabeth Marshall. It wouldn't be expected for multi-millionaire Premier Williams to accept the kinds of monies concerned with in this scandal, or any amount. But to me Beth Marshall seems to really have kept her hands on the moralistic tiller, and out of the till.
Since the 1990s the Internal Economy Commission acted like civil servers, dishing out cash nuggets in increasingly larger chunks for the next 15 years (see summary below). Sometimes it was even rationalized, for example, Bill 19 was tabled and passed. Bill 19 was significant in that it would give the IEC unregulated capacity to deliver the cash to MHAs. After Clyde Wells' time as Premier was done, the rules of the IEC began changing. It was easier to increase constituency allowance amounts, there was less transparency, less permission to increase various financial forms of income or support for MHAs, and tighter control over who could see the transactions that took place.
Whatever way you look at this scandal it is sad on a number of levels. First of all, the stress of the families of those MHAs must be very difficult. The job comes with pressures but also an image of prestige because of being a peoples' representative, a civil servant. But the image now is more inverted than ever, and families can suffer unenviable embassassment. It is also sad in that when you are connected to dishonesty it paints a new image for the public, something about the person that may not otherwise have been perceived. It can be interpreted to make the person seem morally or personally weak, and all too human. We have seen that picture many times before in our national and provincial histories, e.g., Sponsorship scandal, Hydro One, Mike Harris 1999 election.
Each new election carries the hope that people will have learned from the mistakes of others before them, and to not give in to the till temptation. The satisfaction of doing your best for the province's benefit with an already respectable pay should be enough. With the fall election, there may be plenty of new faces this time, who want to prove that. The extent of shady dealings within the House of Assembly would be enough, one would think, to make new candidates think twice about accepting cash bump ups. If this broad sweeping scandal will not teach people lessons, I'm not sure what it would take. Then again, year after year, we see that people have short memories.
Why weren't more questions asked by MHAs from the 1990s to 2004 about all these constituency allowance raises, discretionary spending amount increases, and lax rules which allowed them to be more unaccountable? It's apparant that an environment of acquiecense, and stealthy approval of the direction of where the IEC was going after the Clyde Wells era, saturated the mindset of MHAs. The whole affair leaves questions still unanswered, such as, "How much of say, constituency allowance increases, would be considered normal, given inflation, the passage of time, and demands on MHAs?"; "Why was there approval of $2850 in 2004 after the IEC began reversing previous benefit changes?"; "How much did Premiers Tobin and Grimes know about the IEC's actions, and what moral interventions should they have exercised to halt the abuse of public funds?"
It would be very interesting to hear some explanations from MHAs of their perceptions of the many increases, raises, benefits and rule changes that took place while they were in office. Did they not sense its secrecy was wrong? Again, it's sad when many MHAs do have many good qualities, are hard working, and appear to have sincere intentions for the people they represent.
It will also be very interesting to see how the fall election unfolds. Will many more MHAs throw in the towel? I'm thinking yes and we will see many new faces seeking party nominations. Let's hope that future potential representatives will learn valuable lessons from all of this and from now on, set a better example of honesty in government.
'Life is for one generation; a good name is forever'
~~ Japanese Proverb
Below are excerpts from Rob Antle's very detailed research.
------- For a Complete Reference see Rob Antle's article or the Feb. 23 issue of The Telegram -------
A Timeline of Key Developments in the MHA spending scandal
Taken from Rob Antles article "Behind Closed Doors" from the Feb. 23 issue of The Telegram
First Media Inquiry, 1991
On July 14, 1991, the Sunday Express first raised questions about how MHAs were spending the constituency cash. Then-Speaker Tom Lush rejected the newpaper's request for detailed receipts.
April 12, 1995 - another IEC review of the various Morgan commission report with a view to rationalizing the system.
Clyde Wells era was concluding in 1996 and Brian Tobin's was about to begin and with that many more changes to the constituency claims process.
The IEC said it would reduce travel and constituency allowances for members.
The IEC created a sub-committee to review constituency allowances for "members who appear to be having difficulties with their allotments." Its three members were Tory MHA Loyola Sullivan, Speaker Lloyd Snow and Liberal MHA Melvin Penney.
On Dec. 1, 1998, immediately after question period - with the press gallery empty ... Government House Leader Beaton Tulk introduced amendments to the Internal Economy Commission Act. There was no debate. MHAs voted themselves a pay raise in 41 seconds, retroactive to the beginning of the fiscal year eight months earlier.
Soon after Tobin was re-elected in 1999, the IEC again re-examined constituency benefits. Transparency and accountability of constituency spending faded.
In 2002 AG Elizabeth Marshall said that her office was blocked from carrying out an audit of the constituency allowances.
After Danny Willams was elected Premier in 2003, he "directed" the majority Tory members of the IEC to allow the AG back in to review the books. There seemed to be a sense of contrition as there were some reversals of allowance and benefits raises, that is, until 2004, when the now infamous $2850 constituency bonus was accepted by 46 out of 48 MHAs.