The cost of running the Prime Minister's Office has risen to the highest level since 2011.
Justin Trudeau's office cost taxpayers $8.3 million in 2016-17, the latest audited figure available and the first full fiscal year of his prime ministership.
The level is higher than for any year during Stephen Harper's last term of office, 2011-15, a period when the Conservative government was focused on eliminating the federal deficit.
And it's 20 per cent higher than in 2015-16, a year during which Harper turned over the keys to Trudeau after the Oct. 19, 2015, election. The vote followed an unusually lengthy 78-day campaign, when the PMO operated at reduced levels, for a total of $6.9 million.
Opposition Conservative MP Peter Kent said the latest cost increase is not surprising, "given the Liberals' tendency to spend pretty wildly.… It's in line with actions across the board as a free-spending government."
But a Trudeau spokesperson defended the rise, saying it reflects the prime minister's commitment to connecting with Canadians.
"Unlike the previous Conservative government, this prime minister and our office have made a commitment to engage heavily and regularly with Canadians, Indigenous peoples, provinces and territories, and stakeholders," said Cameron Ahmad, manager of media relations in the PMO.
"Current funding levels for the PMO reflect this increased degree of engagement, and account for more domestic travel and meetings with Canadians."
The $8.3 million — which includes salaries and benefits of political staff, transportation, communications, and professional services — is surpassed by two years during Harper's 2006-15 period in power, that is 2009-10 ($9.7 million) and 2010-11 ($8.9 million).
Higher during EAP rollout
But the Conservatives then and now have defended that higher spending as directly linked to the rollout of the Economic Action Plan (EAP), the massive spending program designed to cushion Canada's economy from the fallout of the global economic meltdown of 2007-08.
The PMO, for example, hired an additional 20 people in 2009-10 for government communications partly to inform Canadians about the EAP.
"The bump that we had during the … Economic Action Plan was when there was an awful lot of additional time, effort and staff put into pushing out infrastructure dollars," Kent, the party's ethics critic, said in an interview.
The audited costs of running the PMO are contained in the annual Public Accounts of Canada, tabled in Parliament each fall. The document separately accounts for each foreign trip by the prime minister, travel amounts that are not included in the expenses of running the office.
In September last year, two aides in the Prime Minister's Office repaid part of the total of $207,000 they had received for expenses in moving to Ottawa from Toronto following the 2015 election.
Trudeau's chief of staff, Katie Telford, and principal secretary, Gerald Butts, said in a joint statement at the time that "we were eligible to be reimbursed for a bunch of costs that we don't feel comfortable about."
"While the rules were clear and we followed them, we both know that's not always enough."
Telford said she would reimburse $23,373, and Butts $41,618, while the prime minister ordered a review of the moving policy.
Standardized, audited costs for all ministers' offices became available only in 2008, when the Federal Accountability Act, introduced by the Conservatives soon after taking office, required public reporting of all expenses, including political staff costs in aggregate.
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