National Columns: We are sorry

by Paul Wells

Two of Trudeau’s top aides expensed $207,000 for moving from Toronto to Ottawa. Now, after two days on the defensive, Katie Telford and Gerald Butts say they’ll pay some of it back.

Well, better late than never.

Late Thursday, after Justin Trudeau and every other Liberal in Ottawa had spent two days insisting the moving expenses of the prime ministerís top advisers were just fine, those same advisers, Gerald Butts and Katie Telford, agreed to pay back about $65,000 of the more than $200,000 tab. Supporters of the Liberals across the land had spent the week making excuses, eager to enable a serious blunder. Fortunately the Liberal palace guard retains some political instincts, even if their fans donít.

Butts is the principal secretary to Prime Minister Trudeau. Telford is his chief of staff. Earlier this week, it was revealed that his original moving bill was a little short of $127,000, hers a little more than $80,000.

A lot of people found themselves wondering how itís possible to spend the median Canadian family income on a single move along five hours of highway, unless you go so far as to nestle each individual molecule of your knick-knacks and heirlooms in a bed of Styrofoam peanuts.

Finally, Butts and Telford engaged in substantial damage control by announcing they will repay an entire category of expenses.

In a lengthy Facebook statement, they noted that while they followed rules in place for decades, they
were repaying $44,172.81 in “personal cash payouts and incidentals.” In addition, Butts will reimburse
some of the $25,141 land transfer tax associated with the cost of his new Ottawa home.

“We know that some people will think that any amount for relocation is unreasonable, and that there never should have been such a policy in the first place,” Butts and Telford wrote in the joint statement.

“We take full responsibility for this having happened and because of that we are sorry.”

There will, for all that, be no need to hold bake sales for them. They are still being reimbursed for lawyers and real-estate fees associated with their home sales. Itís a pretty good deal. Youíre off to the greatest few years of your life, helping a new prime minister implement an ambitious agenda. The cost of selling your house is taken care of. Toronto and Ottawa housing markets being what they are, you pocket a cool half a million on your way to a job that will, what, triple your lifetime earning capacity.

Onward to reconciliation with Canadaís First Nations! Onward to a better deal for Canadaís forgotten
middle class!

I have known both Butts and Telford for something close to a decade. There is no reason to doubt that they followed every applicable rule. Applicable rules in Ottawa – as we saw when general-turned-Liberal Andrew Leslie billed the government $72,000 for moving expenses within the capital in 2013 – can be an excellent deal.

But the rules in this case gave the prime minister “discretion” to set reimbursement at any level. The instinct to claim every available dollar was not required. And the first answers to the House of Commons from Bardish Chagger on the moving-expense matter really werenít great.

As government House leader, Chagger is supposed to be the new face of a government rededicating itself to openness and collaboration in the Commons. But on Tuesday, reading from a prepared text, she said this about the moving expenses: “We have built a diverse team of passionate, hard-working, and extremely qualified Canadians to deliver the change people voted for. The team in Ottawa came from coast to coast to coast to serve Canadians and deliver on our promise to grow the middle class and those working hard to join it. This meant that many people had to move to Ottawa, with their families and children, across the country to serve in Ottawa. As part of this process, some employees received assistance in relocating.”

Come on.

The “team in Ottawa” to which Chagger referred was “diverse” in that it had representation from two of our major genders and . . . thatís about it, actually. They did not come from “coast to coast to coast.” They came from Toronto. They did not come “across the country.” They did not even come across Ontario.

“Transparency is needed,” Chagger read from her notes, just before delivering the heart-tugging ode I have just quoted. By that standard, her answer was pathetic. It took two days for the government to produce some of the transparency she claimed to value.

I am left to repeat a warning I have made a few times already. This government plans to spend more than $100 billion on construction over the next decade, if it lasts that long. Spending on that scale drastically increases the likelihood of two general classes of catastrophe on a scale that routinely sinks governments.

There is the danger of white elephants, as government spends before thinking. And there is the danger of corruption, as opportunistic swindlers make a beeline for the money hose.

We can now add a third danger: That this government will no longer seem populated by the sort of people most Canadian voters ever get to meet or know.

Paul Wells is a national affairs writer. His column appears Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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