Expenses 101: Liberals get painful lesson in perception vs. reality

A week into the fall session of the Commons and it’s already clear the Conservatives are on a mission to portray Justin Trudeau’s government as big spenders of other people’s money, namely yours.

'They may all be legitimate expenses, but it’s going to be hard for the government to legitimize them'

Minister and staff expenses have become a source of controversy for Justin Trudeau's Liberal government. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

A week into the fall session of the Commons and it's already clear the Conservatives are on a mission to portray Justin Trudeau's government as big spenders of other people's money, namely yours.

This mission has already won headlines, but the real focus is far down the horizon, to remind voters — over and over again — that the Liberals can't be trusted with taxpayer money, and won't be worthy of support again in 2019.

The Conservatives are submitting carefully worded written questions in the House of Commons to probe Liberal expenses and the occasional policy issue. The answers to those questions must similarly be in writing and tabled in the Commons.

And they're getting results.

Late Thursday, the prime minister's most senior aides, Gerry Butts and Katie Telford, announced they would repay a substantial portion of the more than $200,000 the two of them claimed in expenses to move from Toronto to Ottawa — expenses uncovered by the Conservatives.

Sunday Scrum on the kerfuffle over Liberal expense claims

7 years ago
Duration 8:27
Gerald Butts and Katie Telford say they will return $65K in 'unreasonable' moving expenses

In Telford's case, the amount being repaid is $23,373.71 for what Treasury Board policy calls "personalized cash payout and incidentals."

Butts is repaying nearly $20,799.10 claimed under the same heading, plus another $20,819.52, which represents the difference between the land transfer tax he paid and what would be the average transfer-tax bill for a house purchased in Ottawa this year.

"The principle we took to these decisions is that we should only be reimbursed the actual cost we paid third parties to make the move happen," the pair said in a statement.

To be clear, both were entitled to claim the full amounts. To be equally clear, to do so had become politically unacceptable.

And that's the larger narrative here.

Safe ground for Tories

Say what you want about the Commons as a place where the great issues of the nation are supposed to be debated. The focus these days is about whether the Liberals are treating taxpayer money as if it was theirs.

And that's exactly the discussion the Conservatives want.
Rona Ambrose and the Conservatives are happy to keep the focus in the Commons on Liberal spending. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"Think about making a $100,000 claim for moving," says Mike Storeshaw, media relations director for interim Opposition Leader Rona Ambrose. "Most people have moved at some point in their lives. They know it doesn't cost that much."

Conservatives also know it's safe ground while the party is in the midst of a leadership race. Setting out policy positions that might not dovetail with the eventual leader is fraught with danger.

Focus on taxes — how much the Liberals intend to raise them and how they're spending them — is a mantra every Conservative shares.

Fundraising fodder

It's also great fodder for the party's fundraising machine, which the Conservatives were quick to employ on Thursday. They sent out a request for $50 donations with this line: "While the Liberals drive up the debt and hike your taxes, they have no problem with living with no expense spared using your money to pay for it."

So expect a steady drip of these expense "scandals" as the Conservatives use the knowledge gained over the past decade in power to expose them.

Health Minister Jane Philpott already repaid $3,700 billed to her office by a limo service owned by a Liberal supporter. The Environment Department spent $6,600 for photos of Minister Catherine McKenna at the Paris climate change conference.

And there are more questions awaiting a response.

One Conservative MP is demanding to know how many cabinet ministers and political staff spent more than $500 a night for hotel accommodations since the Liberals took office.  Another is looking for how much the government spent on framed photos of the prime minister.

And this one: How much has been spent on alcohol served aboard government aircraft since the Liberals took power, including the number and types of drinks consumed?

Perception vs. reality

A senior Liberal acknowledged Thursday — before the Butts/Telford apologia — that the government is learning some hard lessons this week about perception versus reality.

He said they need to do a better job of managing expenses, and refocusing the public onto the main policy initiatives the government is pursuing: a climate change deal with the provinces, a new health-care accord and major investments in infrastructure projects.

Butts and Telford got it right. But the response on other expense flaps suggests the government they work for still has a lot to learn.

For example, the reaction to the controversy last month over Philpott's limo bills was to insist the car she rode in wasn't actually a limo, as if the make and model was the issue instead of the inflated cost of using the service.
Health Minister Jane Philpott has repaid $3,700 billed to her office by a limo service owned by a Liberal supporter. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The prime minister was also asked about the moving expenses of his staff during a news conference earlier Thursday with visiting Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. He brushed aside the issue by saying the expense claims are standard practice.

"The fact is that the Canadian government has been covering relocation costs for senior government officials and political staff since my father was prime minister," he told reporters.

"Canadians continue to expect all of us to work very, very hard and be responsible custodians of the public purse as we deliver on the kind of growth and opportunity that Canadians elected us to deliver." 

Trudeau didn't offer any explanation of why Butts and Telford racked up more than $200,000 in moving expenses, nor did he offer any insight into why simply following the rules is good enough.

'Collective amnesia'

The Conservatives, of course, have their own spotty spending record from their time in power. Former cabinet minister Bev Oda's stay at a five-star hotel in London is a textbook case in how not to be a good custodian of the public purse, even if it was the $16 orange juice she ordered that sparked the most public outrage.
Bev Oda, a former Conservative cabinet minister, caused a big stir when she was reimbursed for a $16 glass of orange juice. (Canadian Press)

"The Conservatives may have collective amnesia about their own expenses," says longtime Conservative commentator Tim Powers of Summa Strategies.

"But it's the Liberals who are in power now and they are vulnerable around the idea of entitlement: the expenses for personal photographers, the moving expenses, the amount cabinet ministers are spending on taxis.

"They may all be legitimate expenses, but it's going to be hard for the government to legitimize them."

It's obvious the Conservatives are betting taxpayers are focused only on what's happening now.

The amounts, by themselves, may seem trivial in isolation. Repaying some, but not all, may be an ointment for a prickly subject.

But it all adds up.

And for Conservatives intent on portraying the government as big spenders of other people's money, that's the only calculation that matters.


Chris Hall

Former National Affairs Editor

Now retired, Chris Hall was the CBC's national affairs editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.