VICTORIA — The B.C. Liberal party continues to struggle to get its bearings as the province’s official Opposition, as evidenced recently by an embarrassingly clumsy attempt to go after the lunch per diems of NDP cabinet ministers.
The Liberals introduced a private member’s bill last week that proposed to ban MLAs who live in Greater Victoria from claiming a $61 food per diem that’s currently available to all the other MLAs.
The argument, according to the Liberals, is that MLAs who live within an hour or so of the legislature, including Premier John Horgan, Finance Minister Carole James and Education Minister Rob Fleming, should commute home each day for lunch or brown bag it to work.
“Admittedly, it’s something smaller on the dollar scale, but I think it’s something that’s relatable to very many British Columbians when they take their lunch to work,” said Liberal MLA Peter Milobar, the bill’s author.
It was a cheap move by the Liberals. Cheap in savings (it would maybe have saved taxpayers $8,000 in 2017) but also a cheap-shot political strategy against the NDP and Greens, who control all the ridings in the capital region.
No Liberal MLA would have to pare back their food allowance under the proposal, because the party has no seats in the region. Yet the premier, several senior cabinet ministers and B.C. Green Leader Andrew Weaver would all take a hit to the wallet.
You can almost imagine the scene at the legislature — opposition MLAs such as Milobar, with a light daily schedule at best, leisurely wolfing down an extended three-course lunch in the legislature’s dining room on the public’s dime, while the premier and finance minister pull out homemade peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as they run between cabinet meetings.
Weaver had an immediate and effective counterpoint. Liberal MLAs from elsewhere in B.C. who get taxpayer-paid housing allowances for apartments near the legislature should have their per diems cancelled too, because those apartments have kitchens and they actually live closer to the legislature than the Victoria-area MLAs who are being targeted.
It’s also worth pausing here to revel in the blatant hypocrisy of the Liberal position for a moment. In 2010, then Liberal government minister of healthy living and sport Ida Chong was widely-criticized for spending $6,000 a year in her food per diem, despite only living 10 kilometres from the legislature.
What followed was a vigorous defence by the Liberals of the per diem for Victoria MLAs. Cabinet ministers have important meetings and can’t realistically be expected to go home for lunch, argued Liberal spin doctors at the time. And yet I noted with irony that one of those same Liberal communications people who went to the wall defending Chong in 2010 was also at the Milobar press conference last week now spinning furiously in the opposite direction.
Liberal communications also had the gall to start tweeting attack ads at the NDP, accusing Horgan of being “on the gravy train” with his lunches, equating it to 20 months of bus passes for an ordinary commuter — a rich comparison when you consider the previous Liberal government’s reduction of bus passes for the disabled.
You’d almost forget the Liberals had the controlling votes on the legislative management committee that sets MLA salary and expenses for 16 years while in government. They could have ended the so-called “gravy train” if they’d really wanted, at any time. But they didn’t. They rode it themselves when they had the chance.
There certainly are questionable areas when it comes to MLA expenses. But paying for lunch for cabinet ministers and the premier when the legislature is in session isn’t one of them. Regardless of the party in power, those people are busy. Every minute is booked with briefings or meetings. I’ve been in interviews with ministers where they have to eat and talk at the same time they are so rushed. Taxpayers get a better deal paying for their lunch and keeping them working than they would stalling the business of government so the premier can drive home to eat.
If the Liberals were serious about reforming MLA expenses, they’d start with the housing allowance. There’s a bizarre living allowance that gives MLAs $1,000 a month with no receipts on how it’s spent (some have used it to buy boats or RVs). A study commissioned by the legislature in 2014 said taxpayers would save money if the legislature just housed all the MLAs in hotels instead.
Or there’s the “transitional allowance” for defeated MLAs that the Liberals and NDP voted in secret to grant themselves at the height of the recall campaigns sparked by the Harmonized Sales Tax. It now provides $132,353 to an MLA who is defeated in an election or doesn’t run again to help “transition” from politics into a new job.
But the Liberals — so offended as they are now over lunch allowances — actively avoided mustering the courage to wade into those issues while in power.
Of course, as a rookie MLA, Milobar knows very little about the contentious history of MLA expenses. It wouldn’t have be possible to find a person with less knowledge about the subject in Milobar’s bill than Milobar himself. I suspect that was part of the Liberal strategy, so he could (and did) simply throw up his hands at questions and claim, “I wasn’t here for that.”
Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson avoided much of the mess last week by being out in the real world talking to voters and visiting communities affected by flooding. I sincerely doubt the thousands of British Columbians displaced by flood waters were asking their Liberal MLAs about the NDP’s food per diems.
Many Liberal MLAs were clearly also unhappy with the party’s position on the issue. More than one described it to me using a variation of the word stupid. They know how busy cabinet ministers are, from experience, and they know how their own party looks when it flip-flops on such an issue.
Likely, Liberal strategists will point to the one day of media coverage on Milobar’s bill as some sort of gauge of success. They should be more concerned with the big picture, like how the opposition couldn’t offer up substantive comment on the day the NDP introduced its two biggest bills this session — marijuana and ICBC reform — because their critics needed more than a day to read the legislation.
The MLA expense issue feeds into the largest criticism still facing the Liberal party today — that it’s willing to do or say anything for its own political gain, and it still hasn’t figured out what it stands for.
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