National Column: The political cost of minister’s limo bill

by Paul Wells

As he announced he would reimburse all the money he charged Jane Philpott for limo service around Toronto, Reza Shirani of Executive Sedan Livery Service Inc. had a stern warning to newspaper columnists and other bottom-feeders.

“I hope to encourage those who feed so voraciously on this petty sort of thing to focus on issues that really matter to the people of Canada,” Shirani, a Liberal supporter of health minister Philpott, told The Canadian Press.

Right you are, sir. Let’s get to it.

It is a good thing indeed that Philpott and the Trudeau government are enjoying a lousy week over her decision to book Shirani’s company, repeatedly, for travel between her Markham-Stouffville riding and assorted destinations in and around Toronto. It is even good if the scale of the uproar is not obviously proportional to the scale of the offence – $1,700, according to early reports of a single day’s limo riding, and probably some number of thousands when all of Shirani’s business with Philpott’s office is compiled.

I bet the Liberals don’t like how it feels when a well-regarded cabinet minister – a seasoned physician who has drawn good reviews in her first year as an MP and who is not conspicuously burdened by ego or ambition – gets her day trips picked apart in the news pages.

They should take it as fair warning. Because Shirani has this much of a point: the cost of a day’s executive sedan livery service is vanishingly small compared to the sums of taxpayer money that will soon be sloshing across the land. And if Justin Trudeau’s government does not soon acquire the habit of watching each dime, the political cost will be correspondingly larger.

That scrutiny was nowhere in evidence when Philpott’s office hired Shirani’s company. He says his prices are competitive for the industry. But the limo industry is designed to deliver a dose of luxury to business clients, wedding parties and high school students at prom.

So you’re permitted to look outside the industry for more competitive options. The most obvious one is to rent a car for the day, put a staffer from the minister’s office behind the wheel, and leave the minister in the back to work. That’s how Jason Kenney did it when I followed him around for two days as a minister in Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. It may not be the best use of a staffer’s time, which is why cabinet ministers have full-time drivers when they’re in the capital. But it’s a lot cheaper than renting a limo and it has zero effect on the minister’s productivity.

Most importantly, bargain-hunting in the small things is evidence of a mindset that becomes vital as you add more and more zeroes to a budget. Justin Trudeau promised a government so active it would not be shy about running deficits. The scale of that ambition has only grown, as have the deficits. On infrastructure alone, he hopes to spend, over several years, almost 75 million times as much as Shirani’s company earned for a day’s livery service.

That kind of spending raises two huge dangers: white elephants and corruption. Canada has seen plenty of both. Mirabel Airport outside Montreal seemed like a good idea in the late 1960s. Years later its status as a boondoggle was clear. The sponsorship scandal arose in the late 1990s because Jean Chretien wanted to spend millions enhancing the visibility of the federal government in Quebec. It was easy enough for a few grifters to hive off millions.

Often scandals arise, not in the obscure corners of a government’s action, but in the management that are closest to its heart, precisely because somebody in charge decides the cause is more important than the fine print.

Already in Ottawa, experienced Liberals are wondering whether this government has the mechanisms in place, and the personalities, to flag dumb ideas and shoot them down when they arise. Some are glad that Stephane Dion – who can be comically undiplomatic around the cabinet table – is there, because at least he pipes up when he doesn’t like something. Jane Philpott surely wishes somebody had acted like that when her travel arrangements came up. This government will need plenty of Doctor Nos if it hopes to avoid much bigger trouble.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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