Firing Shurman: how Hudak is victimizing the public, rewarding swindlers
September 9, 2013 by Paul McKeever
The role of Ontario’s official Opposition is to oppose bills or governmental actions that the Opposition believe are wrong in one way or another. To do that job effectively, the Opposition cannot afford to engage in the very wrong of which it is criticizing the government. However, when the Opposition falsely equates the government’s violation of a good law with the Opposition’s compliance with a bad law, it does an injustice both to itself and to the government. The primary victim, in each case, is the governed.
Last week, just two business days prior to the resumption of sittings of the Ontario legislature – the Globe and Mail published a report by Adrian Morrow that commenced with the following sentence:
“A Toronto-area Progressive Conservative MPP whose riding is a half-hour drive from the legislature is billing taxpayers for his second residence.”
The balance of the article added qualifications that made it clear that the first sentence was entirely misleading, but it appears that few read very much past the first sentence. The basic facts are as follows.
The law provides that each Ontario MPP whose primary residence is more than 50 km from the Ontario legislature can claim up to $20,719.00 toward the cost of accommodation close to the legislature. Ontario is a province covering 1,076,395 km² of the Earth’s surface. For political purposes, that area is divided into 107 electoral districts . Most of the 107 MPPs representing those ridings have primary residences greater than 50 km from the Ontario legislature. Presumably, most if not all of them claim some or all of the $20,719.00 so that they can rent Toronto accommodation, and thereby avoid daily commutes from places like Kenora, Cornwall, or Windsor (daily commutes that, for several, would be nearly impossible, not to mention unreasonably long).
The MPP referred to in Morrow’s story is Peter Shurman. He is the MPP representing the electoral district of Thornhill, a north Toronto riding that is within the 50 km radius of the legislature. However, Shurman does not live in the riding he represents. Like Tim Hudak – the leader the Progressive Conservative party of which Shurman is a member – Shurman lives in the Niagara area, approximately 140 km from the Ontario legislature. Like Hudak, Shurman has a place in Toronto, and the taxpayer subsidizes it. Because Shurman is just an MPP, his Toronto accommodation subsidy is capped at $20,719.00. However, as leader of the Official Opposition, Hudak’s accommodation is fully subsidized, 100%.
Almost immediately after Morrow’s report was published, those using twitter.com were twittering all number of false and arguably defamatory statements about Shurman and the accommodation money he received. Here is just a sample of some of the ones I read today:
@dwainer1: “..what about shurman stealing money from tax payers?”
@YahooCanadaNews: “…Peter Shurman housing allowance scandal…”
@Eddie_iiNSTiiN: “funny how #corruption works”
@CP24: “MPP Shurman bills $20K for residence in Niagara”
@bryan_leblanc “Looks like Tory MPP Shurman has Mike Duffy disease.”
That “residence in Niagara” bit has been the key misleading allegation, and seems to the the false assumption at the base of the various smears and mistruths being spread about Mr. Shurman both in social media and in the mainstream media.
Until last night (September 8, 2013), Shurman was the Progressive Conservative Party’s finance critic, in which role he had the responsibility of holding the government’s feet to the fire over such things as irresponsible or illegal spending. Last night, Hudak – apparently not liking the optics – fired Shurman from the finance critic role (reportedly because Shurman refused to repay the money he received in the past for his Toronto accommodation). Hudak told the press:
“While the current rules were followed [by Shurman], it is clear taxpayers hold elected officials to a higher standard and those rules need to be changed…As Leader of the PC party, I believe we have a responsibility to taxpayers to operate in their best interest…As a demonstration of my commitment to this principle, I have made the decision to remove Peter Shurman from his position as finance critic”.
Toronto Star reporters Rob Ferguson and Robert Benzie placed Hudak’s statement in the following context: “…the spirit of that rule is to help members whose ridings are that distance or more from Queen’s Park” (emphasis added), wrote the reporters. And, most certainly, it appears that that is the distinction that most journalists and social media commentators (Liberal and PC alike) are drawing between Shurman and Hudak: Hudak’s riding of Niagara West-Glanbrook is more than 50 km from Queen’s Park, but Shurman’s riding of Thornhill is not. However, clearly, that distinction is an erroneous one, and it demonstrably does not reflect the “spirit of that rule”.
The wording of the applicable legislation is important. With respect to Mr. Shurman, the appropriate law is subsection 67(10) of the Legislative Assembly Act:
“A member of the Assembly whose principal residence is more than 50 kilometres from the seat of government at Toronto shall be paid the actual cost of his or her accommodation within Toronto up to such maximum amount for the year as may be determined by the Board of Internal Economy.”
With respect to Mr. Hudak, the appropriate law is subsection 64(1):
“Subject to subsection (2), if the principal residence of one of the following individuals is more than 50 kilometres from the seat of government at Toronto, he or she shall be paid the actual cost of his or her accommodation within Toronto:
1. The Leader of the Opposition…”
Were it the case that it is “…the spirit of [those rules] to help members whose ridings are that distance or more from Queen’s Park”, the rules would be ridiculous indeed. Consider the following hypothetical example, in which qualification is based upon the distance between Queen’s Park and the riding represented by the MPP. The MPP for Toronto-Danforth has his principal residence in Ottawa South, while the MPP for Ottawa South has his principal residence in Toronto-Danforth. The MPP whose principal residence is in Ottawa is not entitled to a Toronto accommodation subsidy, but the MPP whose principal residence is Toronto is entitled to a Toronto accommodation subsidy. Such a subsidy would serve not the purpose of subsidizing needed accommodation, but the purpose of rewarding people for representing far-flung ridings.
But perhaps I misinterpret Benzies’ and Ferguson’s “spirit of that rule” comment. If what they mean is that the expense is intended for MPPs whose principal residence is in their own ridings, over 50 km from Queen’s Park, consider the following hypothetical example. Two MPPs have their principal residence in Ottawa South. One is the MPP for Ottawa South, and the other is the MPP for the neighbouring riding of Ottawa Centre. The Ottawa South MPP qualifies for a Toronto accommodation subsidy, but the Ottawa Centre MPP does not. Again: clearly bizarre. Under such an interpretation, the subsidy would serve not the purpose of subsidizing needed accommodation, but the purpose of rewarding MPPs for not being parachute candidates.
But maybe I’m still misinterpreting the “spirit of that rule” comment, so let’s try another example with a slightly different interpretation: one in which both the MPP’s principal residence and the riding he represents are more than 50km from Queens Park. The MPP for Ottawa South has his principal residence in Windsor-Tecumseh, the MPP for Windsor-Tecumseh has his principal residence in Ottawa South, and the MPP for Thornhill has his principal residence in Windsor-Tecumseh. All three MPPs are parachute candidates living over 50 km from Queen’s Park, but whereas the MPPs for Windsor-Tecumseh and Ottawa South qualify for Toronto accommodation subsidies, the Windsorite who represents Thornhill does not so qualify. Under such an interpretation, the subsidy would serve not the purpose of subsidizing needed accommodation, and not the purpose of punishing parachute candidacy, but – again – the purpose of rewarding the representation of far-flung ridings.
The simple fact is that – contrary to what Tim Hudak, some media, and many twitterers assume or pretend – the “spirit of that rule” is well-captured by the current wording of the applicable legislation. The Toronto accommodation subsidies have nothing at all to do with what riding an MPP represents. Qualification is based solely upon the distance between Queen’s Park and the MPP’s primary residence. Peter Shurman broke neither the letter of the law, nor the spirit of the law. To condemn him for violating either is wrong.
It might be argued that MPPs should not receive a Toronto accommodation allowance; that such an allowance is an abuse of the public purse. However, if that is so, there are a great many MPPs, of red, blue, and orange stripes – including Tim Hudak himself – who are abusing the public purse. The proper course of action, if one believes the allowance to be an abuse, is simply to change the law. Until a law is violated, it is a grave mistake to take the holier than thou posture – in Hudak’s words, “a higher standard” – and to condemn what is in fact a compliance with both the letter and the spirit of the law.
When one does what Mr. Hudak has done – when the leader of the Opposition punishes his finance critic for complying with the letter and spirit of the law – he does not merely wrong the MPP: he also causes the official opposition to fail in its role. The reason is quite simple. By punishing compliance with what Mr. Hudak regards to be a ‘bad’ law as though it were non-compliance with a ‘good’ law, Mr. Hudak is implying that breaking a good law is no worse than complying with a bad one. He is implying that anything the governing Liberals have done – any abuse of the public purse, and any violation of law – is no worse than complying with a law. In short: for Mr. Hudak to treat Mr. Shurman as though he is guilty of Liberal sins is to imply that the Liberals have merely complied with the letter and spirit of the law, and are no worse than Mr. Shurman.
If the public is to take seriously condemnations of governmental law-breaking or abuse of the public purse, compliance with the law cannot also be condemned. The Opposition leader should condemn bad laws and, if he thinks a Toronto accommodation subsidy is bad, he should call for its elimination. But if, to that end, he punishes an MPP for collecting the subsidy, Mr. Hudak should likewise punish himself, refuse the subsidy, and return all of the Toronto accommodation money he has received since he first was elected, in the 1990s. Anything less will make his condemnation of the subsidy disingenuous, and will only further destroy the public’s ability to take any condemnation – by any opposition party – seriously. In the end, the only beneficiaries of such false equivocation and hypocrisy will be those who seek to break the law, or loot the taxpayer: the Opposition lacking a credible voice of condemnation, all swindlers will have an easier time of it.