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Thursday, August 25, 2016

McKenna and Philpott give Conservatives opportunity to scuff Liberals’ carefully enameled image

Good things come to all who wait. In this case, I’m referring to recent examples of the spending practices of two senior ministers in the Trudeau cabinet and the gift it has been to the opposition Conservatives.

Until recently, missteps and broken promises seemed to have had little or no effect on how Canadians view the Trudeau government, and opposition members have struggled to latch on to criticisms that have the potential to span a few news cycles.

Recently, though, both Health Minister Jane Philpott and Environment Minister Catherine McKenna have caused embarrassment—or, at lest, some discomfort—after it was found they were less than diligent in carrying out their duty of care when spending tax money.

Ms. Philpott, of course, used one of her campaign supporter’s limousine service for a couple of days, for which she received a whopping $3,815 tab. And, to make the matter worse, she told Parliament—in a written response to an opposition question placed on the House of Commons order paper—that she’d never used a limousine service. Since that disingenuous response, she has apologized and, apparently agreed to pay back $3,700—at the prompting of the Conservatives, ethics commissioner Mary Dawson has agreed to investigate further.

Other of Ms. Philpott’s travel expenses are being criticized. It seems she billed taxpayers $520 for access to Air Canada's executive airport lounges.

Readers are also familiar, I’m sure, with the fact that Environment Minister McKenna has been forced to defended the use of a professional photographer to document her activities at last fall’s COP21 climate summit in Paris. (See post.) Earlier reports had the cost reported in euros with a Canadian dollar equivalent of nearly $11,000, but the minister has since confirmed the bill was CAD $6,600. She’s dug her heels in on this practice, but has, at least, promised “to review the practices so we [Environment and Climate Change ministry] can reduce the costs to Canadians.”

There also have been reports that three Canadian bureaucrats spent $12,000 on meals at the same COP21 conference

These sorts of revelations really do make the Conservative opposition’s job easier, for they reinforce the narrative of the Grits being big-spenders and not prudent financial managers. They also play into a broadly held belief that among senior bureaucrats and politicians there is a culture of entitlement and a general lack of accountability. And, to some extent at least, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked for and got a mandate last fall to end just such a culture of entitlement in Ottawa through greater openness and more accountability.

These are not large sums, of course, but loose spending habits at the individual level do hint at a broader lack of respect for the public purse. I cringe, for example, whenever a politician declares that his or her department cannot afford not to spend public money on some project or other. And especially when the proposed expense is euphemistically (and erroneously) referred to as an “investment.”

A $500 annual membership for a senior minister’s access to airport executive lounges is one thing—I personally believe this can be justified, assuming this minister travels a great deal—but coupled with paying a party insider/volunteer twice what an alternative car-for-hire service might charge smacks of entitlement and cronyism. I for one am offended by this sort of petty corruption. It smells too much like old fashioned politics of the worst kind, and that stinks.

There is a cost of doing government business; obviously there is. And I fully concede that cabinet ministers and senior civil servants should be treated with respect and dignity and should expect certain reasonable perquisites when doing their jobs. But they are also well compensated and can afford to pay from their own pockets for some of the upgrades they personally prefer—a sort of top-up, if you like. Not anything and everything one consumes or does on a job-related trip is a valid, justifiable expense claim.

All expense claims should be scrutinized and approved/disallowed by a government official with a fiduciary duty of protecting the public interest. All civil servants should have a modest maximum per-day amount for meals and incidentals supported by independently verifiable receipts of payments.

We as a society should have a zero tolerance for petty chiseling. All of us should also have a zero tolerance for the sort of inane response we get from otherwise intelligent and seemly capable cabinet ministers. You’d never know Ms. Philpott was herself the individual involved with the questionable practices she’s trying to explain away. She responds as if she is  a bystander with oversight responsibility, but with no personal involvement. It is her personal actions with which we are finding fault, not some nameless staffer’s.

She went on about the controversy underscoring the need for “absolutely rigid, rock-solid procedures, check lists that we go through and that all of government needs to go through.” And she tells us how “We [in government] have a huge responsibility not only to get the work done… but to do so in a way that is absolutely cognizant of the fact that the public puts their trust in us, that we have a responsibility to the public purse.”

These people really do believe they can baffle us with BS!

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