BALDREY: Two big-spending B.C. MLAs have some explaining to do

It’s often the case in politics that a politician can spend a relatively small amount of money, yet reap a heck of a lot of trouble for it.

Misspend a few million dollars? Don’t worry about it. Misspend tens of thousands of dollars? Get ready to be blasted.

Alberta Premier Alison Redford’s leadership is in crisis over her trying to stick the taxpayers with a $45,000 expense bill, and now two B.C. Liberal MLAs have been bruised for making questionable spending decisions themselves.

Justice Minister and Attorney General Suzanne Anton’s decision to approve a contract worth up to $140,000 for former B.C. Liberal MLA John Les not only raised huge questions about her political judgment but also thrust her into the awkward position of being thrown under the bus by her boss, Premier Christy Clark.

A day after Anton defended the contract (which was to have Les co-chair a review of earthquake preparedness) Clark announced it was unacceptable because it was too expensive and said it had been "withdrawn," leaving her minister to explain how the blatant patronage payout had been concocted in the first place.

Meanwhile, Legislature Speaker Linda Reid had some explaining to do of her own. Once again, this bit of trouble did not involve a huge amount of dollars, but just enough to leave a mark.

Reid, it seems, has been on a bit of a spending spree at the same time the B.C. Liberal government is bragging that its tight fiscal restraint policy is allowing it to balance the budget. Reid has spent more than $100,000 on various projects around the legislature and her constituency office, and some of them are questionable at best.

But let’s deal with Anton first. While not all the details have been made public, I suspect the decision to appoint Les to the earthquake preparedness review had the general support of Clark, until it became known what kind of money he was potentially getting.

Appointing Les to the review panel was a bit much to begin with. There’s no question it smacks of political patronage, but the B.C. Liberals have demonstrated on numerous occasions they don’t shy away from handing out plum patronage posts (Les, in fact, already has a $60,000 position as chair of the Farm Industry Review Board).

No, this was all about the money. Clark’s political instincts, which are usually pretty keen, told her paying a political insider $140,000 simply wasn’t going to cut it with the public.

Anton, on the other hand, demonstrated a complete lack of political acumen. Compounding her credibility problem was her nonsensical and mysterious defense of her actions in the first place.

Her office issued a statement two days after the contract was cancelled that Les’ appointment constituted an "emergency" so there was no need to send the contract out to public tender. An emergency? Really? The whole Les debacle gives rise to speculation that she may not survive in the justice portfolio when Clark shuffles her cabinet, which she will do eventually. We shall see.

As for the free-spending Reid, there’s no question she’ll continue in her post as speaker despite the controversy she’s created for herself. Still, she’s had her knuckles rapped by her own colleagues, which is unusual.

Reid quietly spent more than $40,000 to install a new computer console in front of the speaker’s chair in the legislative chamber, more than $13,000 for a members’ TV lounge in the legislature library (which has a $733 table for muffins and coffee) and $79,000 for security improvements to her constituency office.

Reid apologized to the legislature’s management committee (composed of MLAs from both the government and the Opposition) but she’s basically been served notice to rein in her spending spree.

When the government’s overall spending is nearing $45 billion annually, the dollars thrown around by Anton and Reid amount to a miniscule part of that budget.

But while many voters can’t really imagine what $45 billion amounts to, they can certainly relate to a $140,000 contract or a $13,000 TV lounge.

And Alberta’s Redford has discovered people can certainly relate to expensive airplane flights, which is why she’s had to dig into her own pocket to pay the taxpayers back.

Anton and Reid won’t have to open up their own wallets, of course, but they’ve learned a painful political lesson: it’s often the small spending items that can come back to bite you, not the big budget ones.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC

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