Making the Connections

I own a small woodlot in Cumberland County; it's a small island of forest in a sea of clearcuts. Most of the clearcut land around me is owned by the Irving forestry interests or the Crown, and other parts are owned by non-resident and dis-interested folk who probably have never visited their woodlot more than once in their lives.

There are two big pressures on the forests in my neighbourhood: one is government policy, and the other is energy prices.

This blog explores the intersection of those two pressures.

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Frank Corbett Stayed-To-Do-Well Award

Just over forty years ago I worked in Frobisher Bay (as it was then known; Iqaluit now), a northern town of about 2500 people. About 1/3 of the residents were from South - we were mostly Hudson's Bay Company staff, school teachers, government employees, a few clergy. There were a number of small businesses around, and many were owned by folk who had come North to work for government at some level, and ended up in their own business. Their best customers were always the government. There was a phrase we heard often: Came to do good, stayed to do well.

It's a phrase that has stayed with me these four decades, and it almost perfectly describes the political career of Frank Corbett, recently retired MLA for Cape Breton Centre. According to his official biography he was a TV cameraman at the CTV station in Sydney, and more importantly, he was a good union man, rising in the union ranks. Eventually he became an MLA, and then - wonder of wonders - in 2009 the NDP formed government and our shop steward became Deputy Premier among other jobs. His real job, as revealed by Graham Steele in his political memoirs, was to be the guardian of ideological purity in meetings where Premier Dexter was absent.

Mr Corbett's principal and defining personality characteristic was his incredible sense of entitlement. On the day he was sworn in to Cabinet he was treating his buddies to food and drink in Halifax restaurants, all on the taxpayers' tab. (He claimed he was getting advice from fellow union members.) As I have deconstructed elsewhere, what would a $440 meal for six people look like?  How much food and drink would each have to consume to run up a tab like that? From Wikipedia: A check of ministers' records showed that Corbett expensed $441.48 for six people at the Keg restaurant in downtown Halifax on June 19, the night he and his 11 cabinet colleagues were sworn in. In July Corbett expensed $332.90 at CUT Steakhouse in Halifax for a dinner meeting for three people. Two nights later he expensed $250.28 at Ryan Duffy’s in Halifax for three people.

These revelations came after a statement released in September 2009 in which Corbett stated that because of the province's projected $590-million deficit, MLAs and staff had to be prepared to "lead by example." 

In late 2010, as reported by the CBC, Mr Corbett decided that he was too important a figure in the provincial government to drive home to Cape Breton each weekend, so he charged taxpayers $15,100 over seven months to fly home by Air Canada on the Friday and back again on the Monday. Plus $2,800 in the same period for taxis / limos at each end. For all of his time as opposition MLA he was content to drive home, just like his fellow MLA's from Cape Breton ridings. Now, as Big Man, he needed to fly, saying that it was too hard on him at age 60 to drive five hours, plus it was too hard on his family car, which was six years old. (He was earning just under $140,000 plus expenses. He couldn't afford a newer car?) Other MLA's were billing about $350 in travel costs to drive back and forth, and for that money one could rent a car every weekend, and leave the family car at home.

There were two truly defining moments for me. One was when Mr Corbett collapsed the Voluntary Planning organisation. This was just as its name says - volunteer citizens planning for our future. The biggest and best project they took on was a review of the Natural Resources strategy for the province. Many folk remember that one- it's when concerned members of the public decided that they would prefer our province's forests to be respected, and nurtured, and be allowed to continue their traditional functions of supplying some natural resource products, purifying our air and groundwater, providing habitat for wildlife large and small, and hosting Nova Scotians who wished to walk, ski, paddle or just Be among our own trees. For our city-based NDP government, trees were something for union men to cut down and make into pulp in publicly-subsidised mills so that this pulp could be sold into already-oversupplied world markets. Mr Corbett didn't much care for taxpayers and citizens expressing opinions of their own, so he collapsed Voluntary Planning, saying: "why should we pay for  advice we don't want?"  Voters gave the NDP some good advice at the next election.
New Waterford workers celebrate their assumption of other people's jobs.

Another of Mr Corbett's projects involved the relocation of government jobs out into rural communities. I have seen this tried before and it rarely works out well, as programs delivering services to  citizens are usually already out near the citizens, and administration-type jobs often benefit from (and indeed, need) the proximity of other government departments. Mr Corbett decided to centralise all of the positions in the Maintenance Enforcement section of the Department of Justice. This group assists families with ensuring that child maintenance agreements are enforced and that monthly support payments are indeed made, and the twenty-four workers involved already had relationships with their clients. The offices were located in Sydney, Kentville, Amherst and Dartmouth; all those positions were moved to new offices in New Waterford, the riding of Mr Corbett. Of course, all of the workers on the mainland chose not to move to Cape Breton as they had houses and homes and families where they were, and their spouses were unlikely to want to give up their own jobs to move to New Waterford. So, new jobs were created in New Waterford, existing relationships between workers and client families were destroyed, and new jobs had to be found for the other government workers who wouldn't move. It was such a treat to watch Mr Corbett try and pretend that this was anything but a purely political move that served his political interest and disadvantaged the other workers, their client families, and taxpayers. Some people really do have no shame.

And then he resigned. On 2 April 2015, Mr Corbett announced his resignation from the House of Assembly. The timing of the resignation was incredibly fortuitous, as it came a day after the caucus support budgets were set for the year. The NDP caucus got to keep his $43,000 share of funding for the year, even though Corbett had resigned and was in fact replaced in a by-election by a Liberal. 

And then, mirable dictu, the new provincial budget tabled five days later removed the transition allowance for retiring MLA's, a sum equal to one month's salary for each year in the legislature. Mr Corbett's benefit was $89,325 and he got to keep it.  Budget details are normally secret; I wonder if he was tipped off?  

It is very easy, and tempting, to second-guess the spending priorities of the provincial government. From my perch in Cumberland County I would certainly question the spending of millions on a Yarmouth Ferry, millions more on a Halifax Convention Centre,  all the millions spent propping up the pulp mills owned by foreign industrialists and Canadian vulture capitalists. But on a really personal level, as I drive down my road in winter and dodge the fluorescent traffic cones marking the potholes in the centre of my road, I really think that there must surely have been better ways to spend provincial money than flying Mr Corbett home for the weekend, week after week. That money would have paid for several truckloads of hot asphalt to patch my potholes. If we had all the money spent moving the Maintenance Enforcement offices to New Waterford my local elementary school might still be open. I know his $89,000 transition allowance would have helped our school a lot.

My neighbour won't vote: she says all politicians are the same - they are in it for what they can get. While I disagree with her, Mr Corbett's actions certainly made it hard for me to refute my neighbour's position. 

So I am creating the Frank Corbett Stayed-To-Do-Well Award, in honour of politicians, who by their actions, bring  all politicians into disrepute and make citizens cynical about the role of government in our public life. 

Mr Corbett is the first recipient, but he won't be the last.

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