Column

LET US NEVER FORGET

The Prime Minister may pay a price for his nonchalant view of the public purse

MARY JANIGAN August 12 2002
Column

LET US NEVER FORGET

The Prime Minister may pay a price for his nonchalant view of the public purse

MARY JANIGAN August 12 2002

LET US NEVER FORGET

Column

The Prime Minister may pay a price for his nonchalant view of the public purse

MARY JANIGAN

WITH HIS UNCANNY eye for folly, John Diefenbaker was a ferocious political opponent. And the former Conservative leader had an easy target in that autocratic, arrogant Liberal cabinet minister C.D. Howe. In 1945, as reconstruction minister, Howe casually dismissed Opposition complaints about big spending with a languid retort: “I dare say my honourable friend could cut a million dollars from this amount; but a million dollars from the war appropriation bill would not be a very important matter.” Diefenbaker pounced—and never let go.

During the 1950s, he transformed Howe’s remark into a ritual taunt about Liberal extravagance. “What’s a million,” Dief would crow to appreciative crowds as he criss-crossed the nation. By 1957, he was prime minister. “It became more and more effective,” says Denis Smith, author of the Chief’s biography Rogue Tory. “Diefenbaker really caught the public sense about those spending habits.”

Which brings us to Jean Chrétien—and his nonchalant attitude toward the public purse. It has been more than two months since the Prime Minister defended the government’s behaviour in awarding massive federal contracts to Liberal-friendly advertising firms after the narrow federal win in the 1995 Quebec referendum. From 1997 until those contracts were cancelled last month, Ottawa poured more than $70 million into nine firms. The litany of sins is frightful: lost reports, companies which sub-contracted to relatives, sponsorship funding for an event which never happened. Auditor General Sheila Fraser found that officials broke “just about every rule in the book”—and the RCMP is investigating the dismal mess. But in a speech to Winnipeg Liberals on May 30, Chrétien was unrepentant. “Perhaps there were a few million dollars that might have been stolen [my emphasis] in the process,” he said, “but how many millions of millions of dollars have

we saved because we have re-established the stability of Canada by keeping it a united country?”

I can’t get past that: perhaps a few million dollars were stolen! True, a few million dollars may not be much in comparison with the current spate of corporate malfeasance. And it is a small percentage of the estimated federal revenues of $174.7 billion this fiscal year. But it came from our pockets. In 2000, the most recent year for which data is available, the average taxpayer paid $9,115 in federal and provincial taxes, about two-thirds of that to Ottawa. So let’s be conservative and say $2 million may have been stolen. It would have taken 325 taxpayers a year to shuffle together that kind of money to pay the ad agencies to act as middlemen with the sporting and cultural events that received federal funds. Surely there is a fundamental principle at stake here. “Because it is public money,” says David Perry, senior research associate at the Canadian Tax Foundation, “you are violating the public trust by not spending the taxpayers’ money wisely and effectively.”

No wonder Canadians are giving up on politics. For more than two years, the Institute for Research on Public Policy has been pumping out earnest reports on the state of democracy in Canada. Experts have looked favourably on proportional representation. They have suggested how to improve the budget process by making it easier for ordinary MPs to understand supply estimates. They have looked for ways to improve civic literacy and to limit

Why has there not been more outrage over Jean Chrétien’s comment: ‘Perhaps there were a few million dollars that might have been stolen’?

the spending of third parties during federal elections. Peter Dobell, founding director of Ottawa’s Parliamentary Centre, which works to strengthen world legislatures, has proposed that ministers’ parliamentary secretaries and Commons committee chairs be left in place for more than the usual two years—so they can make a real contribution to legislation.

The IRPP series was launched with a poll in early 2000 which probed Canadian attitudes toward politicians and the political process. The most shocking finding is that disturbing numbers of younger Canadians are politically disengaged—and staying that way as they age. So IRPP president Hugh Segal started his quest. “We began the research series,” he says, “because of collapsing voter turnout federally and provincially, the lowest level of party membership in recent history and the fall-off in political participation.” (Only 61.2 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot in the 2000 election—the lowest election turnout in Canadian history.)

Taken together, the IRPP’s collection of nine booklets and numerous articles is an achingly worthy prescription for Parliament and its electorate. Bravo. But how can you remedy public cynicism when the Prime Minister himself has lost touch with the voters? At the very least, when the efforts of so many taxpayers have been squandered, I would expect remorse from the person who is supposed to set the example. Not a defiant, self-serving shrug.

So why has there not been more outrage about the Prime Minister’s remarks? When veteran Tory strategist John Laschinger, who advised the PC candidate in the May 13 Gander-Grand Falls federal byelection, polled voters on whether the government was doing a good job, large numbers said “no.” But when he asked how they would vote, the majority answered “Liberal.” It was only in the last five days, when voters paid attention, that the tide turned: PC Rex Barnes won. And that was before Chrétien’s remarks. Laschinger predicts the same syndrome will happen in the next federal election. “If I were running a campaign,” he muses, “I would make sure Chrétien would remember what he said.” I can’t forget it. Hfl

Mary Janigan’s column appears every other issue. mjanigan@macleans.ca