Iain Hunter: When the pickins are easy, the temptation can be too great

If this sorry tale of skulduggery in our legislature is dismissed elsewhere in Canada as an example of the way things are in backwoods B.C., blame the wood-splitter.

They don’t need one for splitting lobsters on the East Coast, for threshing prairie grain or for whittling in rural Quebec. A lot of Canadians might dismiss it, and the scandal it’s part of, as unique to this province — like seagulls and Social Credit — and shrug the snow off their shoulders.

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But it’s a fact in enterprises of any size, especially government institutions supported by money grudgingly surrendered by the public, that where there’s a way, there’s a will to cheat.

It’s not that we’re all crooks together. But for a great many of us, when the pickins are easy, the temptation’s too great.

That’s not entirely the miscreant’s fault. Department stores and supermarkets display their wares with enticing carelessness. A person of fine upbringing can become a pickpocket on a whim, lifting an apple for a teacher or a diamond ring for a lover.

Parliaments and legislatures, where all business is said to be the people’s business, are at the pinnacle. If they are to perform their constitutional function, the people’s representatives must not be constrained by influences that impede this function.

These include intimidation, bribery and riot. They also include rules and regulations that lesser beings have to pay attention to.

A lot of newly declared honourable members have heard that parliaments are the highest courts in the land. When I was overseeing Parliament decades ago, MPs tried to persuade the Mounties that they were, in fact, above the criminal law. They were smartly disabused.

The framework within which honourable members have to operate is constructed by the honourable members themselves. It is often, deliberately, made porous, or at least difficult to discern.

Consequently, what MLAs, MPs and senators consider “legitimate” claims on the public purse to perform the duties of their high offices can sometimes offend the sensibilities of lesser folk.

Those lesser folk were startled that Bev Oda, a minister in the Harper cabinet, ordered a $16 glass of orange juice and hired a limousine to take her a couple of blocks in London at taxpayers’ expense.

They were puzzled when Dave Dingwall, appointed CEO of the Royal Mint by Jean Chrétien, filed nearly $750,000 in expenses for one year and demanded a healthy severance package after resigning voluntarily from his position.

They were not amused when they learned that George Radwanski ran up $500,000 in travel and dining bills as privacy commissioner in 2002. He was found in contempt of Parliament by a committee of MPs. He was found “less than meticulous” and “clearly negligent” in keeping track of his expenses, but not guilty of fraud or breach of trust by a court.

He could have done the honourable thing and fallen on his fork.

A lot of taxpayers seem, still, to think that Senator Mike Duffy should pay more for his confusion over travel expenses and official residences, even though he has shown that the confusion was not his at all.

Even governors general have been peculiar burdens on the taxpayers. Jeanne Sauvé was not ashamed of dipping into the public purse for rugs and stereo equipment for her trips between Ottawa and Quebec City.

As Speaker, she ordered the replacement of ancient furnishings and decorations in the Commons. “That woman,” fumed the old guard in the clerk’s office.

And last year, we learned that Adrienne Clarkson has cost taxpayers more than $1 million over 13 years after retiring as GG. What was the money used for? “That’s private,” we’re told.

Shades of Dingwall’s “I’m entitled to my entitlements.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he’ll look into setting “best practices” for former governors general, but “in a thoughtful way.”

While he’s at it, he might be thoughtful about the amount of our money MPs and senators spend on haircuts, gym workouts, picture frames, liquor and hangover pills, or the way they use their legislative assistants as errandfolk, or worse.

Don’t ask members of the media: When Radwanski and I were press-gallery members, we could claim expenses, too. The stock phrase was “entertaining sources,” and it covered a lot of things.

But never, as far as I know, a wood-splitter.

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