Musings —09.28.2016 01:42 PM—
When I was a kid, my parents moved around a lot.
But despite their best efforts, I always found them.
[Badda-boom! – Ed.] Okay, okay. That’s Rodney Dangerfield’s joke, not mine. And there’s nothing funny about the moving cost controversy now buffeting the year-old Justin Trudeau government. I know. But sometimes, you’ve got to laugh.
Admittedly, not too many folks are laughing about Freight Gate. By now, the entire country knows that the two most-senior Trudeau aides had their moves from Toronto to Ottawa covered by the taxpayer – at a cost in excess of $200,000. And, by now, just about every newspaper editorial board, columnist, commentator and partisan Tory and Dipper has taken a swing at those two advisors – no less than the factums factotums, Principal Secretary Gerald Butts and Chief of Staff Katie Telford.
Before Butts and Telford issue a grovelling mea culpa and promised to return some of the boodle, the Globe’s editorial board was not impressed, at all: “The decision to allow two personal allies and friends to bill for such huge amounts is a demonstration of poor judgment. This is not a glass of orange juice. This is way more than that.” A columnist at the National Post was similarly unenthusiastic: “Gerald Butts and Katie Telford, two top advisers and close pals of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, made [Mike] Duffy’s sorry little gambit look like amateur hour when their chance came to cozy up to the public trough arrived.”
Meanwhile, iPolitics executive editor, Stephen Maher had this to say: “The Conservatives are right to see opportunity here, and if the Liberals aren’t nervous about it now, they’re being foolish. Senior staffers set the tone for the government. If they’re not seen as careful stewards of the public purse, why should their underlings?”
Why, indeed. Fair comments all. Being a contrarian of long-standing, however, this writer has decided to defend the indefensible. Herewith and hereupon, Your Honours, here is the case for the defendants, Butts and Telford. Three points.
One, like it or not, paying for the moves was within the rules. And the rules, believe it or not, were crafted by the very Conservatives now in a spit-flecked fury about it all. It’s right there on the Internet, if you’ve got a few hours to navigate it: executive employees (EX, they’re called) and Government-in-Council appointees (GIC) get financial help on what is benignly called “relocation.”
They get taxpayer help on the sale – that is, the difference between the appraised value of a house, and the actual sale price. They get money to help them in the “home search.” They get dough to travel home every couple weeks while the home search is underway. They get “incidental expenses” covered. Sometimes, they even get to access the treasury to cover the cost of cleaning, pet care (yes, you read that right), and something called “Accountable Sundry Expenses.”
Now, this may enrage you, and it probably should. But it’s been on the books since 2009, by my count, and that means it was the Conservatives who cooked it up. That is, the Conservatives now screaming and yelling about it.
Second point: what Butts and Telford expensed – and what Trudeau signed off on – isn’t out of line with what has happened before.
For example: in 2014, the Harper folks okayed the payment of almost $40,000 to move a Canadian Armed Forces general to the United Arab Emirates – after, um, he had been court-martialled for having sex with a subordinate and trying to cover it up. Around the same time, retired lieutenant-general Andrew Leslie – now a Liberal MP and a big-wig in the Trudeau government, it should be noted – was handed more than $72,000 for a move after he left the military. Within, we note, Ottawa. (!)
When I was a Chief of Staff at Public Works and Government Services, back at the beginning of time, there was no greater headache for us than this moving stuff. The bureaucrats airily called it the “Canadian Armed Forces’ Integrated Global Relocation Program.” Around the water cooler, we called it “When I Die And Come Back, I Want To Run The Company That Provides Moving Services for the Government of Canada.”
How come? Well, in 2009 alone, the Harper guys gave the big moving contract to something called “Brookfield Global Relocation Services” – for $148,371,000. Thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer!
Third line of defence? Well, what Liberal House Leader Bardish Chagger said, basically: not everyone gets their moving expenses covered. In fact, only a tiny, tiny percentage of the entire public service ever get what she called “help in relocating.” And the bureaucrats, we note, dip into the relocation trough far more than the political exempt staff ever do.
That all said, you may be wondering: “Warren, you said you were a Chretien-era Chief of Staff. You must’ve hired lots of people. Did you ever pay for these kinds of moving expenses?”
Short answer: no. Never. My view – and Chretien’s, and most of the Ministers around his cabinet table – believed working for the Government of Canada on important stuff was reward enough. If we offered them a job, they could damn well get themselves to Ottawa. And just because it’s within the rules doesn’t mean you should do it.
Public service is a calling, like John Turner always said. It’s not an opportunity to cash in.