The Conservative government has doubled spending on regional offices that support travelling cabinet ministers, prompting accusations that service delivery to citizens is taking a back seat to public relations.
Newly released government documents show the number of "Ministers Regional Offices" has grown from 12 to 17 over the past five years, with one new office in Yellowknife costing $821,443 last year to set up.
Ministers' Regional Offices are scattered across the country for the purpose of supporting all cabinet ministers who travel through that particular part of the country for government business.
Documents show federal spending on regional offices has increased from $1.9-million in 2008-09 to $4.1-million in 2012-13, an increase of 116 per cent. The actual total amounts are higher because the figures only include operational expenditures, including salaries. The office lease amounts are not included.
NDP MP Charlie Angus, who obtained the figures this week in response to a written question in the House of Commons, questioned the expansion of ministerial offices during a period of spending cuts – including to regional offices that service veterans.
"The obvious question is are [the offices] there to deliver services, or are they there to deliver the Conservative political agenda in key battle grounds?" he asked. "Anecdotally, people say 'Geez, a new office. What's it do? Meanwhile our local Service Canada is being cut, our Veterans Affairs office is being cut. What's it do?' "
The Conservative government is currently facing criticism from veterans over the fact that Ottawa isshutting down nine regional offices that support veterans. Prime Minister Stephen Harper defended the Veterans Affairs changes in the House of Commons Tuesday, saying veterans services will be provided by the roughly 600 Service Canada centres across the country.
"What is happening here is a significant increase in service. There are a small number of service centres that are being closed that, frankly, serviced very few people, had very few visits," he said. "In an increased number of cases, employees will actually go and meet veterans, instead of the other way around."
Part of the government's explanation for the higher spending on regional offices for cabinet ministers is that three of the five new offices were built in the territories, where construction costs are higher. In addition to the new office in Yellowknife, the government spent $408,921 in 2011-12 to set up an office in Iqaluit. It is not clear why a new office in Whitehorse – which is also in the North – cost considerably less at $133,714. The two other new offices include one in Fredericton that opened last year at a cost of $589,965 and one in Kitchener, which had an opening cost of $64,350 in 2009-10. The government states that "purchasing new furniture and equipment" for new offices leads to higher one-time costs.
The previously existing regional offices are in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal, Quebec, Moncton, Halifax, Charlottetown and St. John's. The documents show that each office is staffed by two full-time employees, except for Yellowknife, which has one full-time and one part-time employee.
The figures on regional offices for ministers were tabled by Public Works Minister Diane Finley.
Marcel Poulin, a spokesperson for Ms. Finley, defended the increased number of offices.
"We believe that in a country as large and vast as Canada, Canadians in all regions should have reasonable access to Ministers' Regional Offices. In 2010 to further connect Canadians with their Government, we began establishing new Ministers' Regional Offices in remote Northern regions in order to better serve all Canadians in all parts of our country," he said in an e-mail, adding that spending in established regional offices is down by nearly 4 per cent since 2010.
The minister's answer tabled in the House states that the criteria used for determining the location of a the offices is established by the government and then implemented by Public Works.
"The mandate of the Ministers' Regional Offices Program is to provide secure office space and administrative support to all federal Cabinet ministers when conducting Government of Canada business," states the minister's tabled response. "Cabinet ministers and their staff conduct Government of Canada business, including business related to their regional responsibilities, from the Ministers' Regional Offices."