Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia MLAs spent $34K on promotional kitsch in 2 years

Since provincial politicians eliminated the limit on ad spending in 2014, MLAs have spent more than $34,000 on promotional items such as fly swatters, travel toothbrushes, mugs, pans and beach balls.

Rules allow purchase of Frisbees, fly swatters, tote bags and beach balls

Halifax Chebucto MLA Joachim Stroink spent $1,650 last March and $2,000 in August 2014 buying promotional material from Halifax Seed. He was one of 16 MLAs who took advantage of new rules around promotional spending. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

Nova Scotia taxpayers are now paying tens of thousands for beach balls, fly swatters, Frisbees, bandages and seeds, along with the traditional items MLAs buy to hand out to constituents.

Their giveaway purchase choices have exploded since politicians did away with the spending limit for advertising two years ago.

Sixteen MLAs have spent a total of $34,317.24 on such purchases since August of 2014, according to a CBC News review of MLA expenses. The spending rules changed July 10 that year, eliminating the strict limit on spending for advertising purposes.

Mostly Liberals

As long as the purchased item bears the name of the MLA and a contact number or address, it is considered an allowable expense.

And it's almost exclusively Liberals buying the kitsch. Fourteen of the 34 Liberals in the House bought this new brand of promotional items. All told, they collectively spent $33,042.91 since the limit was lifted.

Premier unconcerned

Premier Stephen McNeil isn't bothered by the amount or what his caucus members have bought.

"Every MLA has to make a determination of how they best communicate with their constituents," he said. "The Speaker's office approves that."

McNeil suggested it wasn't his job as leader to judge the purchases.

"The boss of them is their voters. I'm in charge of the government. When it comes to who gets to represent individual ridings it's the voters of those ridings and those voters will get a chance to look at those and determine whether they want to return the MLAs or not."

Change recommended in 2014

In a report issued in the spring of 2014, a three-member independent review panel recommended eliminating the cap on advertising. The House of Assembly's management commission adopted the recommendation in July of that year.

Until then, MLAs were restricted to 10 per cent of the overall office budget, which worked out to $428 a month, plus a once yearly allocation of $1,020.

MLAs collectively spent over $34,000 on promotional items since the spending limit was eliminated two years ago. (Jean LaRoche/CBC)

That meant giveaway items were limited to note pads, fridge magnets and pens, although MLAs occasionally splurged on key chains or mugs.

MLAs can now spend as much as they want, as long as they have not blown their monthly office budget, which now ranges between $5,500 to $5,800, depending on the constituency. 

The biggest spender

The biggest spender, by far, is Joyce Treen, the MLA for Cole Harbour Eastern Passage. Since the rule change, she has bought $7,196.76 in non-traditional giveaways. The purchases include fly swatters, fans, cleaning cloths, tote bags, hand sanitizers, ice scrapers, beach balls, pens, travel toothbrushes, cutlery and bandages.

All of it came from a company called Amsterdam Products, which bills itself as, "Your trusted leader in promotional products."

Treen defended her purchases: "It's in our budget and we're allowed to do it, and it's a way to have your name out there."

MLAs can now spend as much as they want on promotional material, as long as they have not blown their monthly office budget. (Jean LaRoche/CBC)

She said some of her giveaways were being put to good use.

"I have constituents whose children don't even have a toothbrush, so you know what, yes, my address is on it but there's a toothbrush for that kid to brush his teeth."

The second biggest spender is the backbencher who sits next to Treen in the legislature. Stephen Gough, MLA for Sackville-Beaver Bank, spent a total of $5,027.36 on tote bags, pens and lawn signs.

Spending well above old limit

One of the newest members of the Liberal team, David Wilton, elected July in 2015, has racked up the single largest monthly bill for these kinds of promotional items.

In March, the MLA for Cape Breton Centre spent $3,907, including $2,275 on seed packets from Halifax Seed. He also bought travel mugs, accessory bags, card cases and jar openers.

Environment Minister Margaret Miller came a close second, spending $3,722.50 that same month. She bought beach balls, fly swatters, mugs, LED lights and travel cutlery to give away.

Growing support

Like Wilton, Halifax Chebucto MLA Joachim Stroink likes seeds as a means of advertising. He has purchased twice from Halifax Seed, $1,650 last March and $2,000 in August 2014.

Other notable expenses include:

  • $2,132.84 for glassware, tote bags and water bottles purchased by Speaker Kevin Murphy.
  • $1,468 for mugs, lawn signs and inflatable soccer balls bought by Immigration Minister Lena Diab.
  • $815 for frisbees and $220 for beach balls bought by Patricia Arab, MLA for Fairview-Clayton Park.

Arab felt both were justifiable expenses.

"If you've ever seen kids playing beach balls, they're happy," she said. "They hold on to them. It's something that stays in the house and something that is fun and is able to stay with them for as long as it stays inflated, I guess."

Opposition spending

Two PC MLAs also bought non-traditional items.

Pictou-area representatives Tim Houston and Karla MacFarlane bought "slow down" lawn signs. He spent $574.33 on them in August. She has yet to file a claim for her recent purchase of about $700 worth of signs.

During the past two years, it appears New Democrats have stuck to buying traditional giveaways of pens, fridge magnets and notepads.  

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