Why MLAs don’t get more respect

People should admire politicians, be proud of them. They should have the support of their fellow citizens, who selected them in an election process.

People should admire politicians, be proud of them. They should have the support of their fellow citizens, who selected them in an election process.

So why doesn’t it work that way more often?

It’s an important question. If the people we elect to represent us don’t have our respect, neither does government or the rule of law. There is no reason to pay taxes or accept the rules of a government that you don’t consider legitimate.

Rich Coleman just offered a pretty good example of part of the problem

MLAs have refused to reveal their expense claims – how much they get for food, housing in the capital and other costs.

They promised disclosure last May. In July, it became a big issue when filings required by cabinet ministers revealed Ida Chong had claimed $5,921 in meal allowances – even thought she lived 10 kilometres from the legislature.

MLAs are entitled to a $61 per day meal allowance when the legislature is sitting or they’re on government business. (No receipts needed; they can grab a bagel, pizza slice and burger for the day and pocket $40.) Chong claimed 98 days worth of meal allowances.

If you’re from Dawson Creek, maybe you need a meal allowance. But not if you live in the capital and are paid $150,000 a year.

Chong is not likely alone. New Democrat MLAs from the capital region supported Chong. And they refused to say how much they had claimed in taxpayer-funded meal allowances.

But the good news was that the controversy forced MLAs to promise an end to secrecy by last September.

It hasn’t happened. Mike de Jong, the former Liberal house leader, said MLAs were resisting disclosure of how they spent taxpayers’ money.

No, said Coleman, the current house leader. “I’m not finding a lot of opposition to it.”

It’s January. Disclosure was supposed to happen four months ago. In the real world, that’s a problem. There is no commitment on when taxpayers will get the facts.

Coleman wasn’t being candid. If there was no resistance, the September commitment would have been met.

Kevin Krueger offered another reason politicians are held in disrepute.

The cabinet minister bristled during a Kamloops radio interview about an announcement of hospital improvements when the host noted New Democrat health critic Adrian Dix had campaigned for the changes.

“If there ever was a guy who shouldn’t put his head up to get it shot off – as the soldiers refer to it – it’s Adrian Dix,” Krueger responded.

In the week after a politician and 19 others were shot in Tucson, it was an especially dumb remark.

But it would have been a dumb remark anytime. Dix had pushed for needed improvements to the hospital, especially to equipment that left surgeons starting operations with dirty instruments. That’s just the truth; slagging him doesn’t change it.

Dumb remarks are human. Krueger said he realized right away he had made a mistake.

Still he initially told the Globe and Mail he wouldn’t apologize.

Dix is “constantly negative” and has a “reprehensive history” in B.C. politics, Krueger said.

“It was an off-the-cuff comment that I do regret, but I certainly don’t think anyone owes Adrian Dix an apology.”

So according to Krueger, only some people can be wronged. People who are “constantly negative” don’t have the a right to expect fair treatment.

Krueger did apologize later. But it was too late. Who could know if it was his conscience, or the public affairs bureau commanding the change of heart.

These people can do better. Certainly many voters expect better of them.

The recall campaign against Chong looks like it will fall short of the required 40 per cent of registered voters. But it seems likely more people will sign petitions calling for her firing than voted for her in 2009.

Chong is a perfectly average MLA. The strength of the recall effort shows many voters expect more from their elected representatives.

Footnote: MLAs do have a high opinion of their own value. They can claim up to $19,000 a year for a capital residence if they’re from outside Victoria.

That’s four times as much as a single disabled person gets in income assistance for shelter.

Chong’s meal claims were just slightly less than a disabled person gets for all expenses except housing for an entire year.

And MLAs increased their pay 34 per cent in five years, while the average wage in B.C. rose 12 per cent.