The opposition Conservative Party is up in arms this week over the expenses that two Liberal cabinet ministers recently charged to the public purse. It's a sight to see.
In one case, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna spent $6,600 on a photographer who captured her every moment at an international climate change conference in Paris last year.
In the other case, Health Minister Jane Philpott billed the taxpayer $3,700 for two days of private car service in the Toronto region, as she travelled to and from meetings in Niagara and Hamilton. She also expensed the $520 she spent for a year's access to Air Canada's airport lounges, with their pasta salad, multi-coloured tortilla chips and all the free booze you can swallow.
This reached a head on Tuesday, the same day that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced $1.486-billion in new infrastructure grants for mass transit in Ontario. A contrite Ms. Philpott, who had already agreed to cover the car charges, said she would do the same for the lounge access. Ms. McKenna, on the other hand, said she would look at ways at spending less on photographers in the future but defended the practice and the expense.
The government is about to spend $1,486,680,000 on buses and subways, and on studies about buses and subways, and the controversy of the day is about an amount of money equivalent to 0.0007 per cent of that massive total? Have we lost our minds?
Yes and no. On the no side, it's like the political version of the "broken windows" theory of crime prevention: If a minister can't spend $3,700 in a responsible way on a car service, then there is no way he or she can be trusted with an annual operating budget of $1.7-billion, as Ms. Philpott is. Keep the pols on their toes about the pennies, and the dollars will take care of themselves.
On the yes side, this justifiable instinct is exacerbated by Canadians' natural, how should we put this, parsimony regarding the lifestyles of important people. We don't want our grandees to become too grand. You can see this in the case of the obviously needed renovations of the Prime Minister's official residence, 24 Sussex Drive. Various recent prime ministers have been so reluctant to be seen spending tax dollars on improvements to their living quarters that what should be a marquee Canadian building is now basically a well-appointed firetrap. It sits empty because the current PM has sensibly taken up residence in another government-owned home.
That's nuts. We have to stop demanding that our cabinet ministers book the middle seat in economy, or bed down at discount hotels. Ms. Philpott had to hire a car for two days of meetings that took her across southern Ontario; her error was giving the job to a Liberal Party volunteer who overcharged, instead of paying the going rate to another service.
But she is perfectly within her rights to expense access to a not particularly exclusive airport lounge that provides her and her cabinet documents a little more privacy than the boarding area at Gate 24C. This is a woman who handles one of the most important portfolios in the federal government, and yes, she is entitled to some sensible perks.
As for the photos, we're glad to hear Ms. McKenna will look at ways of reducing that cost in the future. It is something her Conservative critics never did during their decade in power, but should have. An investigation by iPolitics.ca last year revealed that the Harper government spent $2.3-million on photographers to follow around Tory cabinet ministers between 2006 and 2015. The photographers recorded some 2,500 events in all. The Liberal opposition criticized them for it – and then picked up where they left off. Around it goes.
Perhaps taxpayers get so angry about politicians' expenses for the simple reason that small figures are comprehensible. It is easy to get exercized about a cabinet minister who spends $18 on a glass of orange juice, because we all know the worth of a glass of orange juice. But, say, $4.79-million on "grade paving" for Toronto's transit system, as Mr. Trudeau announced in his infrastructure package on Tuesday? Hard to know if that's the price or not.
Politicians and taxpayers are not wrong to wave their finger at ministers, members and senators who become too self-entitled to their entitlements. The fact that Ms. Philpott's use of a party loyalist's overpriced car service will now be investigated by the federal ethics commissioner is proof of that.
But anyone truly worried about government spending needs to set their sights higher. That $1.5-billion in Ontario transit spending announced on Tuesday? It's just one small piece of a Liberal plan to spend $125-billion on infrastructure over the next 10 years. One-hundred-and-twenty-five. Billion.
That's where the real money is, and where the real waste can happen. The nickel-and-dime stuff has its place, but it is more theatre than real fiscal accountability.