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NDP finally scores a nice little scandal

What were ministers thinking when they took Jets tickets?

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There is no word adequate to describe the poor judgment shown by provincial cabinet ministers who wittingly accepted free tickets to see the Winnipeg Jets this past, glorious season.

Silly isn't enough. Stupid seems a bit coarse. This was a group of elected officials and officers of the Crown who suffered a collective loss of common sense that allowed them to accept free tickets to see the Winnipeg Jets play. In a city starved for NHL hockey, where perhaps only one in 10 real hockey fans got a chance to see a game live, this is unbelievably insulting. It would be like having Mother Theresa accept delivery of a pizza while telling Calcutta's poor and starving she had nothing to feed them.

Group brain-freeze? Collective cerebral cortex dysfunction? Mass neurological misfire? When you get right down to it, perhaps stupid is the right word after all.

To be clear, there are two ethical issues at play here.

First, there is the issue of elected officials, and senior government officials, accepting free tickets. In this case, the tickets came from both Crown corporations and non-governmental third parties. The rules for elected officials receiving sizable gifts are clear, and one can only imagine NDP cabinet ministers, visions of repatriated professional hockey players dancing in their heads, forgot a single ticket to a NHL game is, by its very face value, the very definition of a "sizable gift." It is actually impossible to explain what kind of brain fart occurred when the ministers accepted the tickets and failed to report the gift.

In cities where NHL hockey did not take a 15-year hiatus, politicians understand much better the perils of accepting free tickets. Federal Conservatives have confirmed Prime Minister Stephen Harper, as big a hockey fan as this country has, refuses to accept free tickets to a sporting event. When he does attend, he has paid for the tickets out of his own pocket, not out of a PMO expense account. This was the case, or so sources indicated, at the Vancouver winter Olympics, when Harper attended most of the important games played by Canada's men's hockey team. This included the gold-medal game, where the face value of tickets was hundreds of dollars.

Harper is smart to insist on paying for tickets to sporting events, the kind of smart Manitoba cabinet ministers now wish they had been. However, buying the tickets is not the only dilemma in this scenario. Access to tickets is also a commodity politicians in particular must be careful not to accept too often.

For example, in a city where hockey-mad fans snapped up Jets' season tickets in a matter of minutes, access to tickets is arguably the most important commodity in play. Many people would buy tickets if they could get access to them. It's a harsh reality of life in a NHL city the rich and famous get that access more often than non-connected people. That reality, however, should have served as a pretty obvious warning to politicians to steer clear of being seen to have too many tickets and thus too much access.

That having been said, how do we explain the horrendous lack of judgment by Premier Greg Selinger's cabinet ministers and the senior managers of provincial Crown corporations? Part of the problem here is, prior to returning to the NHL fold, politicians and senior bureaucrats would have had ready access to hockey tickets almost anytime they wanted them. Why? First, because the hockey in question was played in the American Hockey League, and there was not the same value placed on a pair of Manitoba Moose tickets. And second, because Crown corporations have been buying up tickets to support professional sport in this town for some time and those tickets had to go somewhere.

Although (perhaps conveniently) no one I could reach remembered what it was like in the old days of the original Winnipeg Jets, certainly since the Pan American Games were held here in 1999, government has been underwriting sport by buying up tickets. During those games, Crown-corporation purchases of event tickets helped make Winnipeg the most successful host city ever for that event. It mattered little the Crown purchases of tickets amounted to a second layer of taxpayer support for the games; many people in government and out of government accepted the free tickets and patted themselves on the back for being such good hosts.

The trend continued when the Manitoba Moose were the big and only show in town. It seems impossible right now, in the midst of the storm surrounding the current ticket scandal, to get a straight answer, but some tickets to those games were consumed, in one fashion or another, by government. And it's quite likely politicians and mandarins accepted free tickets, knowing at that time, the value did not make them a very significant gift. That was then, however, and this is now. The NDP has been relatively smart at avoiding the shameless scandals that, quite frankly, seem to be commonplace at other levels of government and in other provinces. No expense scandals, no five-star hotel upgrades or $1,000 business lunches. This event, for better or worse, ends that squeaky-clean record.

When it was clear the NHL was returning to Winnipeg, we all fell in love. In fact, it's not too much to say the Jets had us at hello. However, like all great love affairs, it pays to keep your wits about you. Otherwise, you end up very much playing the fool.

 

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 12, 2012 A4

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