Gerald Butts and Katie Telford are sporting black eyes after their taxpayer-funded moving expenses became public. It is the house-moving equivalent of Peter Mansbridge’s hitherto secret million-dollar-plus salary; transparency at last and transparently obscene.
It was also another embarrassment for the PMO, an institution that only 12 per cent of Canadians trusted in the waning years of the Harper government. The top two exempt staff members in Justin Trudeau’s office, his chief-of-staff and his principal secretary, were outed in an expense scandal that conjured up images of porkers past. David Dingwall famously expensed his chewing gum: Butts and Telford charged the public $126,669.56 and $80,382.56 respectively to move from Toronto to Ottawa.
(The only way to make those figures look good is to recall that Retired General and now Liberal MP Andrew Leslie billed Canadians $72,000 to move to a new home a four-minute drive away from his old one in Ottawa. The military picked up the tab for that plate of caviar.)
When you are caught arse in the air with your head in the public trough, one has two choices: insist you have done nothing wrong and declare you are entitled to your entitlements; or recant, apologize, and hope that voters hate the sin and love the sinner.
In the end, Butts and Telford opted a little bit of both, though probably far too little of either. But make no mistake, these two and their compatriots were hardly likely to have voluntarily given back a dime until suddenly there was an unholy stink raised in and around the House of Commons.
After two days of bobbing and weaving about having done nothing wrong, they suddenly saw the light. In their letter of apology, posted on Facebook, they reiterated that they were operating totally within the rules by charging all those items to the public. No question, they were by all evidence entirely within the law.
Sound familiar? Oddly enough, Mike Duffy made the same point when he was criminally charged for running up allegedly improper Senate expenses. He too was right. But Sen. Duffy was legally exonerated, which should never be confused with publicly forgiven. Butts and Telford seemed to have taken the lesson.
After asserting that they had broken no rules, the PM’s prodigal aides followed a step further in Duffy’s shoes. They both claimed that there were elements of their relocation expenses that made them feel uncomfortable at the time, just as Duffy had testified in his own defence.
This is where the comparison ends.
Butts and Telford expanded the Duffy Doctrine. In their ‘mea culpa,’ they said they now felt strongly that the rules they followed in filing their moving expenses were so utterly, egregiously, and inherently wrong that they voluntarily returned a portion of their jammy reimbursements.
More than that, Trudeau himself asked Treasury Board to change the regulations which Butts and Telford say made them feel uncomfortable. The mink stole is about to be traded in for a sensible cloth coat and just in time. As reported by the Toronto Star, while the Harper government spent a total of $325,000 to relocate 29 staffers in nine years, the Liberals have spent $220,000 to move five staffers — and all in just nine months.
Still, the damage control strategy of Butts and Telford was more sagacious than Duffy’s. The Senator was merely claiming he had done nothing wrong. In the end, Sen Duffy was cleared in criminal court. In the court of public opinion, he was handed a life sentence. In the case of Butts and Telford, they seemed to be offering remorse, considerable restitution and a promise of reform, a tactic aimed not merely at survival but forgiveness.
Will the once-spendthrift pair reap dividends from this Come-to-Jesus moment? It all depends on how the public answers another question: If these two top Trudeau aides and confidantes felt so uneasy about some of their moving expenses, why did they make the claim in the first place? Was their response based on principle or merely awful publicity?
However that question is answered, the last people in Ottawa who should be gloating about Butts’ and Telford’s face-plant on their moving expenses are the Conservatives. The Trudeau aides were operating under regulations amended by the Harper government in 2011. If the rules are, as Conservative MP Candice Bergen claims, a personal ATM for the current government and its minions, it was Stephen Harper who handed out the debit cards. In fact, Harper’s PMO approved nearly $325,000 in relocation expenses during its tenure, including $93,000 in moving expenses for one senior ministerial aide. In court, they call that a precedent.
His former Conservative colleagues might want to forget it, but Harper himself approved spending the numbers off the public’s credit card on security details, his show of shows G8 and G20 meetings in Toronto and Muskoka, the 24/7 video vanity project, and the million-dollar fly-over of parliament to celebrate the dubious accomplishment of turning Libya into a failed state. (Peter MacKay might have been thinking about that one when he declined to enter the Conservative leadership race).
And if the Conservatives are whooping it up over Butts and Telford re-paying expenses, it is a phenomenon not unknown in their own party when they were the government. Have they forgotten that their Senate leadership of the day, which led the witch hunt against Sen. Duffy, both Leo Housakos and Claude Carignan, had to repay expenses judged to be improper by Auditor General Michael Ferguson?
While the Conservatives should be handing out anti-hypocrisy pills to their MPs (they dissolve nicely in the Kool-aid), the Liberals are firmly in the saddle now and now have to deal with their own slide into disarray after less than a year in office. Sunny business has become funny business across a range of issues — Harper legal strategy against veterans, Harper-like environmental policy, and similar to Harper, another proposed free-trade deal, this time with China.
Consider the political management score-sheet: One cabinet minister, Hunter Tootoo, lost and the reasons why concealed by the government. Another cabinet minister floundering over not knowing where she was born, after the party made so much political hay in the recent election about her Afghan roots. (The political theatre was so good even President Obama repeated the misinformation about Maryam Monsef’s birthplace.)
And now two more Liberal staffers, the chiefs of staff of Foreign minister Stephane Dion and Innovation minister Navdeep Bains, perhaps experiencing a twitch of belated conscience and reimbursing the public for their exorbitant but perfectly allowable moving expenses. It did not help that Justin Trudeau’s initial reaction was to defend these indefensible relocation claims as long-established practice.
Although Trudeau has done a lot of things right in a relatively short time — raising Canada’s international reputation, passing assisted-dying legislation, repealing Harper’s repressive and unconstitutional anti-union statutes, and extending a helping hand to refugees, smoke detectors should be going off in the PMO.
It is open season and the Conservatives have gone head-hunting. So far, it has been surprisingly easy work.
Author: Michael Harris