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November 20, 2012

Taxpayer Paid Political Staff

Partisans on all sides agree that it is inappropriate for MLAs and their staff to use public resources to do fundraising for their political party. Emails leaked to Province reporter Cassidy Olivier drew attention to another inappropriate use of public resources, taxpayer paid staff developing a partisan attack website against Adrian Dix. Where is the line drawn on what is appropriate for political staff to do?

It could be argued that all political staff employed in the offices of ministers and the Premier are engaged in "political activity" as are the staff employed in the caucuses of all parties. The kind of political activity they are employed to do includes responding to constituents, researching policy, helping with speech preparation, meeting with interest groups and lobbyists and a host of other activities which extend the capacity of MLAs. Without those staff, the public would become upset that MLAs were incapable of responding to their letters, calls, emails, delegations and concerns expressed in a variety of other ways. That kind of political activity is perfectly legitimate in the sense that no one of any reputable party has ever challenged the appropriateness of spending tax dollars on staff to do that work.

Writing about the Liberal staff in Olivier's story, Province columnist Mike Smyth concluded his November 20th column saying: "The Canadian Taxpayers Federation wants an independent audit, though the NDP said that's not necessary, which makes me wonder if they pull the same crap with taxpayers' loot." On the same day Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer helped provide an answer to Smyth by discussing the NDP's video that criticizes the government's $15 million ad campaign. Palmer asked how that is different from what the Liberals did and answered his own question writing: "The New Democrats note that their staffers were not working on a party campaign nor a personal attack. Rather, the video was produced in support of Opposition criticisms of government spending. Holding government to account being the purpose for which the public provides staff and resources to the Opposition."

The last time an auditor looked at the potential abuse of tax dollars for partisan purposes was another case involving the Liberals. In 1997 the Liberal caucus, sitting in opposition with leader Gordon Campbell, spent about $700,000 sending almost 750,000 British Columbians materials the Auditor General determined was of a partisan political nature and as such violated the rules set out in the Members' Handbook. Technology has changed enormously since 1997, but it is still against the rules to use tax dollars for partisan purposes. In the case of the 1997 mailing, everyone knew it had been sent by the Liberal caucus and the resulting controversy led to Campbell inviting the Auditor General to review the matter and provide an opinion. The Liberal's attack websites on Dix have generated some comment, largely along the lines that they are amateurish and ineffective. Would an audit have discovered that staff working for the Liberal caucus and the Premier were engaged in developing those websites? Not likely, unless whoever leaked the emails to Cassidy Oliver also provided them to the auditor. Audits wouldn't be helpful in discovering when political staff cross the line between acceptable and unacceptable political activity. We can only hope that there continue to be enough honest people working for all parties that abuses come to light. It wasn't a freedom of information request that exposed the Liberal emails; it was a good old-fashioned leak to a reporter.

In some respects the website issue is a tempest in a teapot. Compared to the $15 million of taxpayer dollars the government is spending on partisan ads, work on the website was small potatoes. However, in both cases it is a matter of ethics. Politicians and their staff should know better than to use tax dollars for work that should be funded by their party. The best way to deter abuses is to publicly condemn them and hold the offending party accountable.