Advice for independently wealthy MHAs
From Chief Justice Green's report, out today, a passage worth quoting in extenso, the ludicrous copyright claim notwithstanding.
Infringement lawsuits welcome.
Emphasis added; footnotes omitted.
Substantial amounts of public money have been spent by many MHAs from their constituency allowances by way of donations to individual constituents or groups. These expenditures come about in a variety of circumstances. I have noted in Chapter 9 that the job of a politician in this province appears to involve the dispensation of largesse in the community. In the run of a year, an MHA may be expected to provide hospitality, including rounds of drinks, at community events; to contribute with cash donations to sponsorship of individuals or groups, especially cultural or sports groups, who are competing away; to provide financial assistance to constituents who need food, clothing or supplies or who need help traveling to a major centre for medical treatment; to buy raffle tickets at community events; and to buy items for sale at community events as a means of supporting those activities.
Oftentimes, especially with cash donations to community groups, the donations are made at the end of the fiscal year by MHAs who had money left in their constituency allowance account and felt that this was an appropriate way to spend the remaining funds. A substantial number of MHAs argued that the nature of political life in Newfoundland and Labrador is such that it is necessary that such expenditures be condoned. In fact, some said that their lives as elected members would be intolerable if those expenditures were not permitted. They talked in terms of the tremendous pressure placed on politicians to make donations and give financial support within the community. They said it was expected of the politician and that if he or she did not “play the game” there would be consequences at the polls. They also argued that such expenditures, judiciously applied, made an important contribution to the community. How could an MHA, it was said, turn down a request for food or medicine for an impoverished constituent? They pointed out that government social programs were often inadequate and citizens sometimes “fell through the cracks.” The MHA was in the best position to know who the deserving ones were and to take steps to fill the void. The point was also made by some opposition Members that the ability of an opposition MHA to provide “social service” types of donations was especially important because there was a perception that government Members, especially if they were also Ministers, had an easier time accessing government programs for their constituents. The ability of opposition Members to make discretionary donations was one way in which this perceived imbalance could be righted.
Notwithstanding these arguments, I believe these practices belong to another age. It is an age we should leave. They are reminiscent of Governor Williams’ description of the politician at the beginning of the twentieth century quoted by S.J.R. Noel in Chapter 9 as:one who has to look after [constituents’] personal interests in every detail. He must be ready to watch over them when they are ill and get them free medical treatment; he must get them free tickets for the seal fishery … employment on the railways, free passes from place to place, billets for their sons and daughters ... In short there is nothing too ridiculous for electors to expect of the member.[...]
First and foremost, the practice of making financial contributions and spending in this way supports the unacceptable notion that the politician’s success is tied to buying support with favours. Such things, especially the buying of drinks, tickets and other items at events, has overtones of the old practice of treating - providing food, drink or entertainment for the purpose of influencing a decision to vote or not to vote. As I wrote in Chapter 9, it demeans the role of the elected representative and reinforces the view that the standards of the politician are not grounded in principle. In fact, I would go further. The old practice of treating was usually undertaken using the politician’s own funds or his or her campaign funds. To the extent that the current practice involves the use of public funds, it is doubly objectionable.
Even if it were deemed acceptable to make certain kinds of donations, such as those to “worthy causes” like cultural groups or sports teams, the practice by its nature is open to inequitable application and leaves the politician susceptible to allegations of discrimination. A grant to the local soccer team and not to the baseball team may be perceived as nepotism if the politician’s uncle happens to be the coach of the soccer team. Often it is the “squeaky wheel” that gets the attention, yet there may be many other worthy causes that could equally benefit from support, but may not be known to the politician. In these circumstances, it is difficult to treat all claimants fairly. In principle, a system of financial support to the community using public funds should only be operated on a basis that is fair to all, and perceived to be fair to all. All groups should have the opportunity to compete on a level playing field, something that is not followed when political discretion is concerned.
As in the case of any citizen, Members should be able to make a donation privately from personal funds to whomever they consider needs it. One has to be careful, however, to ensure that more wealthy Members should not be able to obtain an advantage in promoting their own political position by making substantial personal donations, thereby placing financial pressure on less well off Members to do the same. In my view, the effects of this potential inequity can be reduced by requiring that when a Member makes a personal donation he or she should do so without reference to the fact that he or she is a Member of the House; in other words, it is to be made in a personal capacity only. It is true that many people might nevertheless recognize the name and make the connection with the Member’s public position. There is little that can be done about that if the connection is made from general knowledge in the community. However, the Member should not actively promote dissemination of information about the connection when making the donation.