08.31.2016 03:31 AM

This week’s column: little shovels, big graves

Back when he was Liberal leader, I worked for Jean Chrétien. 

I was his Special Assistant. I wrote speeches for him, helped out on Question Period, approved his correspondence, stuff like that. I didn’t ever have anything to do with his trips to different parts of Canada, thank God. Other guys did that. 

Early on, one story made the rounds in the Office of the Leader of the Opposition, however. All of us heard about it, and we didn’t forget it. 
Chrétien was out and about in the hinterland – Northern Ontario, I think, but it doesn’t matter. He and his one assistant clambered off the plane, alighted on the tarmac, and they saw It. 

It was a limo. 

It stood there, all shiny and big and black, a beaming local Liberal organizer beside it. The local organizer had rented the limo to squire the Liberal leader around during his visit. 

Chrétien’s face reddened. The assistant stammered. The local organizer frowned. 

“We will not get in that,” said the assistant, trying to be as nice as possible. “We will wait here until someone shows up with a Chevy or a car like that, please, one ideally made in Canada.”

“It shouldn’t be fancy.”

There may have been some swear words somewhere in there, too, but this is a family newspaper. Suffice to say that all of us who worked for Jean Chrétien – and all of the local Liberal organizers, too – got the message. 

The message, per the political bard (Tip O’Neill, natch), is this: in politics, take the job seriously. 

But don’t take yourself seriously. 

That’s the main problem, of course, with the expense account stuff now buffeting the Trudeau government: some people are taking themselves way too seriously. They work hard, so they tell themselves they deserve that shiny black limo, purring as It awaits them at a curb somewhere. They think – to recall that line that will forever live infamy – they’re entitled to their entitlements. 

More than ten thousand bucks to hire a photographer to snap pictures of a Minister and her staff (Staff? STAFF? Um, why?) Thousands spent on limos and lounge passes. Untold thousands to ferry the Prime Minister’s staff and relatives to sunny beaches on government jets – and the evidence later altered to show something else. 

None of these people are corrupt, as some conservative voices are now suggesting. They are not stupid people, either. They are not intrinsically evil, as far as I know. 

They are, however, about to learn Kinsella’s Political Rule Number One: big political graves are dug with tiny shovels. 

Sixteen dollar orange juice. Gucci loafers. Gold-plated faucets on a plane. Claiming per diems for a house you don’t actually live in.  

None of ’em added up to big dollars. But all of them contributed to very powerful losing power. 

The Trudeau regime spinners are now trotting out the same facile spin lines as every government (the Chrétien one excluded, that is) since time immemorial. Here they are. 

• “The other guys did it too!” – This one didn’t work when you were seven and you and your sibling ate all the Halloween candy, and it certainly won’t work now. Saying you are as covered in sin as the other guy isn’t an excuse, it’s an admission of guilt.

• “It’s cheaper than the alternative!” – The Environment Minister gave this one a whirl for a while. Said they: “We could have flown over a photographer from Canada, but we saved you lots of money by hiring a photographer in Paris!” Um, no. Firstly, you have those government-issue smart phone things to take pictures, and government-issue staffers to snap the damn shutter. Secondly, there’s no such thing as a cheap anything in Paris. 

• “Canadians don’t care. Nothing to see here, move along!” – The Harper guys loved this one. They used it all the time. Got them kicked out of government, didn’t it? Ipso facto, Kinsella’s Political Rule Number Two: a significant number of Canadians don’t know how many million are in a billion. But they sure as shit know you can afford to pay for your own parking out of your own paycheque. 

And therein lies the rub. As I sat with Jean Chretien on a Summertime bench on Sparks Street, munching a two-dollar hot dog paid for out of our own pockets – bureaucrats on their way to fancy expense account lunches at the NAC, agape at the Prime Ministerial presence – I made a mental note to scribble down Kinsella’s Political Rules Three and Four for later use. 

They are: Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself. It’s thinking of yourself less. 



(Also, don’t ever get in the limo.)


  1. dean sherratt says:

    You forgot a zinger…its a sedan not a limo…

    Seriously, much of the problem lies with the fact that senior bureaucrats and ministers are able to claim actual expenses for many travel expenses. Lesser civil servants are issued per diems that are intended to cover your meals and incidentals whether they do or not. I see no proof that ministers eat more than anyone else and surely its worth losing a ton of grief just to get a per diem. Most likely you will lose some money but not much and certainly not your job. Also, you claim it for the days you travel and there can’t be any downside to it. You can buy the $16 orange juice…just the breakfast per diem won’t cover very much else. There are other problems associated with ministerial spending but this will take care of a lot of it.

  2. Eric Weiss says:

    I agree wholeheartedly. And this is why this small-c conservative was a big fan of your old boss. Even voted for him once. These limousine liberals need to get a grip and fast. These small things pile up and the fuzzy feelings Canadians have for JT will wear really thin if the people around him start to abuse their expense accounts. Especially as the unemployment numbers across the country start to get worse.

  3. Étienne says:

    Yes. Absolutely. Good rules. But can we somehow make a pact to spend at least as much time discussing serious political issues as we do these headline-grabbing, click-baiting, advert-selling, expense controversies. Sure they deserve space on the page and time in the sunlight. It helps curb the enthusiasm for expensing things that should not be on the taxpayer dime. But they shouldn’t rank anywhere near as high as they do. We can do better than the status quo.

  4. Michael Clifton says:

    Love this commentary.

    Can I tell you that the minor occasional typos are driving my editorial OCD nuts, though? 🙂

  5. Maps Onburt says:

    As a guy who regularly claims expenses for a large multinational, I’m beyond livid when I see what some of these entitled MP’s and MPP’s try to pull off. I’ve seen a few instances of it in the private sector but generally we have little time for people who go overboard (and there are strong controls in place to catch it) as we know it comes off the bottom line and you need to sell $10 of stuff to pay for $1 of lost profit. My own personal rule is that I don’t spend more than I would if I were paying for it myself. A per diem system would get rid of a lot of this nonsense. I’d love to know who signs off on these expense claims. In our system, our superior has to sign off on them (after they have been automatically reviewed for compliance to the guidelines – exceptions are sent to the manager for review and approval). What bureaucrat is going to tell his/her minister that he/she can’t buy $16K vanity photos?

  6. dave constable says:

    On strike in the far north hinterlands circa 1990! Labour Minister ordered someone from our bargaining team/exec to catch hell from the minister at a meeting in Vancouver. Union central in Burnaby picked up my expenses. A colleague joined me (she was my ‘muscle.’) and we picked up a union rep in Prince George.
    When we got off the plane in Van, we trudged to the taxi stand. I eyed the limos. $26 for a limo to Hotel Vancouver. It crossed my mind that it would be great for the union reps from the boonies to arrive in a limo (Although, we didn’t have a photographer.)
    But, we three bundled ourselves into a cab to get to where we were going to Hotel Vancouver, and trundled into the hotel lobby, caps in hands.
    The cab fare was $26.

  7. Bill Mullen says:

    The local organized frowned

  8. Bill says:

    I’ve never understood how so many politicians think everything is covered as a business expense. Hell, I used to work in advertising during and after the Mad Men era, and even then there were limits. If a meal was expensed it had to be a practical solution to an actual issue. And you had to talk shop. Sure, rules were often bent, broken, and lies concocted, but Accounting was always asking questions and there were various levels of Bosses and ultimately, Clients, to answer to. And consequences for false claims. Politics is rarely a first job. Politicians must have lived by expense rules (whatever they were) in their old job. They applied for their government job knowing to the penny what it pays (and that pension!). Expecting to buy their own lunch or paying for dry cleaning from their healthy indexed salary shouldn’t be a shock. I realize politics is not a 9-5 job, but that’s not a surprise either. The effect on family and private life is likely far more onerous than anticipated, but a vast majority of Parliamentarians reapply when their contract’s up, so it can’t be prohibitive.

    But some expenses make sense. Cabinet ministers often attend several events in a day. Schedules have to be kept. It’s impractical to expect them to drive themselves, search out parking, and trundle off to a meeting dragging whatever briefcases and pop-up displays are required. Been there, done that. I’m guessing (based solely on what I see in movies) most politicians can actually get work done (or deal with personal matters) when they’re passengers. Occasional as-required transportation issues that doesn’t require fleets of limos and uniformed drivers. Just make sure taxpayers aren’t getting ripped off by suppliers. That’s where the admin people booking the service(s) come in.

    But it’s not the same with the PM and jets. The Prime Minister (all PMs, not just Trudeau) can’t fly commercial whether he wants to or not. Maybe he’s not even allowed to drive anymore. In spite of what some seem to think, he has a terrible work schedule. His personal and family life has taken a big hit. He knew this, probably better than anyone in Canadian history, when he applied for the job. But in return for a work and travel schedule that would be impossible for most of us and certainly destroy any semblance of personal lives, he gets to occasionally travel with his family. He also gets to take a day off once in a while. I realize the PM’s days off drive some people crazy (usually on their days off), because they seem to be spent somewhere nice doing something cool. Whatever. These people get bent out of shape when the PM sometimes takes staff, family, nanny (another silly issue), and associates with him when he travels. Some think they should follow him around on commercial flights purely for the inconvenience it would impose. (There’s no practical reason since the PM’s jet will go with or without them). The “compromise” position is that non-PM and staff pay the equivalent commercial airfare. Why? When he travels by motorcade do accompanying staff, family, and press repay the equivalent in cab fare? Uber rates?

    Okay, this unedited (sorry, no time) rant is ending abruptly but I have to grab a cab and take a flight. Both deductible as biz expenses, but neither billed to my client.

  9. Kevin says:

    What Dean said. A little story: I’m winding down a long career in international security, and have been sent overseas for the government many times to conduct site inspections or for a speaking engagement etc. The per diems some places don’t cover expenses, so you make do. Bangkok, for example, doesn’t even come close. Your entire per diem will almost cover dinner. My first time there I found a seedy little pub run by a British expat where you could get a greasy burger and fries, so if I wanted breakfast and dinner the same day I used that place. Second time I found a grocery store in a basement a few blocks from the hotel. Used that place every other day.

    I only did a couple of trips with only one destination. Usually if I was sent somewhere I’d look for other sites in the region that were also due for an inspection and include those. Fly to the farthest one, work, then stop at the others as I made my way back. No sense in flying me out three times when I could do three sites in one trip.

    As far as family tagging along, that happened a few times too if I stayed in place for a vacation. We paid out of our own pocket, transportation and all. As soon as I finished my assignment, I was off the clock and all expenses were mine from that point on.

    All that said, I’d be willing to cut the PM some slack when it comes to family coming along. But for his people to start falsifying records? No no no no no.

  10. Patricia Houston says:

    The Prime Minister has taken 24 days vacation since he was elected almost 10 months ago. People think he takes constant vacations. He always pays for them himself. No, neither he nor his wife Sophie are allowed to drive and they do not choose the cars they ride in.
    The government looked into using only electric cars but there is insufficient charging stations at this time.
    Remember Harper’s limo, { or limos} being flown to India and back for him to ride in?

    • godot10 says:

      24 days in 10 months is basically 5 weeks (5 work days per week) in 10 months, or six weeks per year.

      How many Canadians take 6 weeks of vacation per year?

  11. Charlie says:

    Heres some fodder for thought:

    We pay MPs nearly $200,000 a year.

    Their constituency expenses are funded by allotments that are independent of their salary.

    They claim travel; which is also independent of their salaries.

    Their staffers do the bulk of the work an MP should be doing when they’re not busy at picnics: most constituency staff make barely over minimum wage, some less than minimum wage but do the work of a full-time and well compensated employee.

    With all that accounted for, MPs walk away with a solid six-figure salary.

    Do we pay our MPs too much money? Can we really say that each of the 338 MPs that serve at the moment, regardless of political strip, is earning that large salary?

    I worked for an MP. He’s the furthest thing from a lavish politician lapping it up on the public dime. He’s frugal and cognizant of perception. But its hard for me to make the case in favour of paying him what he gets now because at the end of the day, I know that 25% of his time consists of actual work while 75% of his time consists of just shaking hands and smiling.

  12. Ronald O'Dowd says:


    Almost anything should go for a head of government. As for the rest of them, the exact opposite should be the case.

  13. James Smith says:

    Yeah, but no.
    I take your point about entitlement etc etc. However; there is an inconsistency in your argument. As one who often likes well crafted works of creativity, & posts about the failure of Newspapers and other ventures that used to employ creative people one should pause & consider that your column is, for the most, about Photographs. We don’t value the work of Photographers because their work is ubiquitous, it is free, & so, like everything that appears on line from News to Videos to Music, we think it should be free. What would a lawyer charge for a weeks work? How much equipment & paid assistants would she charge?

    I’m taking issue as one who’s worked in the applied arts (rather than the fine arts where my heart is) and fights weekly about the cost of hours of expertise that’s denigrated because “it’s only a drawing” . I know professional photographers who can no longer make a living at their art because Philistines think that anyone with a phone can take a picture.

    The minister should have replied: “Have you ever hired a Photographer for a wedding, & what did it cost you?”

    Seems to me that it was a similar kind of tac your former boss used when he talked about golf balls.

  14. Ridiculosity says:

    No government should ever waste hard-earned taxpayers’ dollars.

    But having Ministers stay in a student dorm during a caucus retreat?


    These aren’t 19-year olds.

    Nor should they be treated as such, simply for the sake of spin.

    Sudbury has a Travelodge Hotel that can be booked for only $93 per night.

    There may not be a mini-bar in the room.

    But then again, that’s why Coleman sells coolers.

    • Cory says:

      From what I understand it was apartment style dorms where they each had their own room but shared the kitchenette and living room. Often those dorms will have 4 bedrooms and two bathrooms.

  15. PJH says:

    At the risk of sounding like a broken record……I like to see gov’ts be thrifty, and M. Chretien’s was indeed(as I recall he had the nickname “PM No”)…..but I also believe a govt can be penny wise and pound foolish. Mr. Harper and his predecessors all the way back to the current PM’s father, have been living in an official residence that is desperately in need of a complete renovation/restoration. Worn out plumbing, dangerous wiring, asbestos hazards, mould, no central air conditioning, leaky drafty windows….etc, etc, etc.
    24 Sussex Drive belongs to the people of Canada, it is part of Canada’s heritage…..and it is shameful that we have allowed it to fall into such a state of disrepair. It’s time the gov’t and the NCC bit the bullet and brought the building back to a state that is safe, comfortable, and secure for PM Trudeau, his family and staff. The US would not allow their President his family and staff to live in unsafe, delapidated accomodation, nor should we with 24 Sussex Drive.

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