Remember Bev Oda’s $16 orange juice.
That’s not a question. It’s a statement. And a cautionary tale. And a maxim every elected official should put up on the office fridge – or tattoo on their forearm.
If someone had pinned it to the bulletin board in Quebec Finance Minister Eric Girard’s office, he might have avoided engineering a public-relations fiasco. He certainly wouldn’t have held a press conference to celebrate it.
Ms. Oda’s expensing of a $16 hotel orange juice, while a minister in the Harper government, became instantly infamous and continues to live in infamy, to a degree that larger fiscal sins almost never do. Small sums wasted on simple things are relatable, making public outrage visceral.
On Nov. 14, Mr. Girard invited members of the media to Quebec City’s Centre Vidéotron, where he proudly revealed that next year, the arena will host to two preseason games involving the Los Angeles Kings. The privilege will cost taxpayers between $5-million and $7-million.
Mr. Girard pitched this as a celebratory announcement. That was not the reception he received.
The province is in the midst of rolling public-sector strikes. The health care system is in chaos. And Quebec’s food banks say they exhausted their annual $6-million provincial operating subsidy in just three months.
Mr. Girard’s news launched a thousand hours of talk-radio talk. Almost none of it was positive.
A few days later, he tried again. There’s an old maxim in politics that, “if you’re explaining, you’re losing.” It’s not always true – except if the explanation turns a bad first impression into a worse second impression.
Mr. Girard revealed that taxpayers were paying to compensate the owners of the Boston Bruins and the Florida Panthers for lost ticket revenues, owing to their games against the Kings being moved to Quebec. And the players would, of course, need to have their meals paid for by taxpayers. Of course.
More orange juice, anyone?
Another old saying in politics is that a gaffe is when you tell the truth. Mr. Girard was honest enough to explain that he was just trying to make use of the underused Centre Vidéotron – built nearly a decade ago, by a previous government, at the cost of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, in the hope of persuading the NHL to “return” the Nordiques (who divorced Quebec City in 1995).
He was, in other words, admitting to throwing good money after bad.
Mr. Girard also explained that the odds of the NHL granting a franchise to Quebec City were 10 per cent, and proudly offered a clever mathematical formula for this conclusion. He appeared unaware that the average voter’s take away would not be that the Finance Minister is a really clever guy.
Ever since the Quebec’s Coalition Avenir Québec government lost an Oct. 2 by-election, it’s been suffering a public nervous breakdown. Mr. Girard’s pay-to-play plan only furthered the crack up, with members of his own caucus lining up in front of the cameras to criticize his decision.
If Ms. Oda’s orange juice should have been a cautionary tale for Mr. Girard, then his Christmas gift to the NHL should be a warning to all politicians. The Canadian public has never been enthused about taxpayer subsidies to pro leagues or international sports businesses, and what little appetite there was is fading fast.
Calgary voters rejected a bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics. British Columbia shot down a 2030 Vancouver Olympic bid. Hamilton considered a bid for the 2030 Commonwealth Games, but withdrew after the province declined to front the money. Ditto for an Alberta Commonwealth Games bid.
But one giant sports venture is coming to Canada in the next few years – and the public subsidies on offer far outweigh those for two NHL games in Quebec City.
Vancouver and Toronto last year “won” the right to host 10 matches of the 2026 FIFA World Cup, which is to be jointly played in Mexico, the United States and Canada.
B.C. says taxpayers are on the hook for $230-million – for five games. That’s $46-million a match. Or $511,000 a minute. Or $8,518.52 a second.
Or, for the price of one Bev Oda orange juice: less than 0.002 seconds of play.
B.C. says taxpayer costs include $73-million for security, $14-million for “traffic and stadium zone management” and $8-million for “decoration and brand protection.”
To pay for that, the province is allowing Vancouver to impose a tax of up to 2.5 per cent on hotel stays. To raise $230-million, it will have to be in place for seven years.
In Toronto, hosting five games is guesstimated to cost around $300-million taxpayer dollars – but what has been promised FIFA, including the cost of breaking the contract, is covered by a non-disclosure agreement.
Mayor Olivia Chow said in August that Toronto is probably stuck with the secret deal signed by her predecessor, and the only option may be to make the best of it – by begging the province and the feds to pick up the tab.