Score another direct hit for the Canadian Taxpayer Federation. Our friends at the CTF grabbed headlines this week by revealing, through an access to information request, a personal expense scandal involving Red River College President Stephanie Forsyth. CTF chief prairie sleuth Colin Craig, acting on a tip from a "whistleblower," revealed several questionable expenses claimed by Forsyth over the past two years. These included $200 for golf shoes, $130 for a duffle bag and automobile expenses, including her driver's licence fee.
Let it be said that Forsyth should have known better. The golf shoes in particular are one of those expenses whose symbolic value far exceeds its monetary value. Forsyth said she needed the shoes to attend a golf tournament as a representative of RRC. Most golfers know that a) you can get a decent pair of golf shoes for less than two C-notes, and b) a lot of non-golfers (which she admits to being) have been known to get through a round of golf in a pair of trainers. Either way, it was a silly expense that a highly paid civil servant should have known was a lightning rod for axe-grinders and dissidents.
As for the other expenses, you could make a strong case that they are rather mundane. Perhaps there were explanations for why Forsyth claimed a duffel bag or her licence fee. We'll never know because the CTF, as is its style, did not call the president for clarification before posting the expenses online.
This publish-first-ask-questions-later-style is well practised by bloggers and other self-proclaimed, Internet-fuelled watchdogs. Get your shot in, worry about whether you were on the mark later. The CTF, like a lot of bloggers, would argue that it is not part of their job to call the people they skewer for comment; that's the work of hack journalists like me. However, not calling and getting clarification or reaction means that you don't really care if what you're saying is accurate, fair or even worthy of publication.
That strategy allows the CTF to revel in its own glory for a day or two. In the long run, however, it hurts the organization's credibility. More importantly, it is hurting the overall cause of accountability and transparency.
Consider that the CTF, for example, has been one of the strongest and clearest voices on the very real need to have our provincial and federal politicians post all of their expenses online. They are 110 per cent correct in their assertion that it is the only fair and objective way to ensure that elected officials are using our money wisely. Recent controversies surrounding MP and Senate living expenses, and refusal of Parliament to release full details of those expenses, is evidence of the practical sanity of the CTF campaign.
But here's the rub. Not putting those expenses online enjoys almost complete multi-partisan support. That is to say, all parties are resisting the move to full transparency. Why would the gross, gross majority of MPs and their parties resist this much-needed tribute to accountability? Stories like the one detailed above are likely to blame.
I've talked to politicians from all parties on this issue, and although they do not oppose the idea of full transparency for expenses, they genuinely fear the cheap shots they would suffer at the hands of the CTF. Yes, there are politicians who generally abuse their expense accounts, claim things they should not claim, and they should be brought to justice. However, the overwhelming majority of politicians do not abuse their expense accounts. The CTF doesn't really care much about that.
In fact, it's not a stretch to say that the CTF is offended politicians get paid at all. It's not hard to imagine that in the CTF's ideal world, politicians would be wealthy volunteers who sat in Parliament as $1-a-year executives and brown-bagged lunch every day.
With that overarching philosophy, the CTF sets the bar quite low for what it considers to be an outrage. Forsyth's golf shoes were pretty silly, and I suppose we should thank the CTF for the fact that she is repaying the money. As for the other expenses, we really don't know if they were justified or not. Those expenses are not out of whack with what a chief executive of a large post-secondary institution would collect. Especially when you consider that universities and colleges have to pay private-sector-level salaries and benefits to attract top people to lead their institutions. You won't hear that context in the CTF rant.
Undoubtedly, many readers will find no sympathy with politicians who resist something as important as transparency because of something as trivial as being embarrassed by the CTF. However, with each Forsythian "scandal" revealed by the CTF, that resistance becomes more entrenched.
I'm just spit-balling here, but while we're making demands of our elected officials to demonstrate more propriety, perhaps the CTF could pick its fights more carefully while campaigning on our behalf.
If the CTF limited its whip to those politicians who genuinely abused expenses, perhaps it would become the champion of accountability it has always aspired to be. And we would know that we're not only getting justice, but displaying a sense of justice as well.