Costs to run Prime Minister Trudeau's office climb higher

A Conservative critic says the higher cost of running the prime minister's office — $8.3 million in 2016-17 — is yet more evidence of the Liberals' spendthrift ways. But a spokesperson for Justin Trudeau says it merely reflects more engagement with Canadians.

First full fiscal year of Liberal government saw rise in costs of operating Prime Minister's Office

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shows his children his new office on Parliament Hill in 2015. A new report indicates the cost of running the Prime Minister's Office rose to $8.3 million in 2016-17. (CBC)

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.

Conservative MP and ethics critic Peter Kent says the rise in the cost of running the PMO is reflective of the Liberals' spendthrift ways. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
"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.

Then-prime minister Stephen Harper spent almost $10 million for his office in 2009-10, but the Conservatives say it was a temporary boost related to the Economic Action Plan. (Carl Vallee/Prime Minister's Office)
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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About the Author

Dean Beeby

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Bureau

Dean Beeby is a CBC journalist, author and specialist in freedom-of-information laws. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanBeeby

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