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This article was published 22/8/2016 (1092 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Last week, federal Health Minister Jane Philpott pulled off the rare triple-play of political scandals.
Many citizens will have heard that since coming to office last November, Philpott spent more than $7,000 of taxpayer money on the use of a chauffeured luxury car in and around Toronto.
The expenses included a $1,900 charge for a July 12 return trip to Niagara Falls from Toronto, $1,700 for trips in and around Toronto last March, and another $3,800 for 20 trips to and from Pearson International Airport. That’s $190 per airport transit, or more than double standard airport limo rates.
A controversy such as this is trouble for any politician, particularly on the heels of a long and painful expense-related scandal involving several members of the Senate, including but not limited to the recent criminal trial of Sen. Mike Duffy. Philpott seemed dissatisfied with authoring a run-of-the-mill expense scandal. No, the rookie Liberal minister was able to deliver on two more aggravating factors.
First, she fibbed. Asked in the House of Commons about her car expenses, Philpott denied she ever rode in a "limousine." Later, it was gleefully revealed by a national news organization that her ride of choice was a Lexus ES 300, a luxury sedan that runs about $50,000, and which rents in Toronto with driver for up to $170 per day. Not a limo, per se, but a pretty sweet ride and one that should have been available to the minister for a much more reasonable rate.
Philpott wasn’t done there. Turns out the owner of the car service is a campaign donor. Although that should not exclude him from doing business with Philpott — thousands of Canadians who donate to governing political parties end up doing business with that government — it certainly should have given him pause about the rates he was charging.
The scandal was so poorly managed that even when Philpott promised to pay back some of the money out of her own pocket, and the car service offered to refund some of the rest of it, the pressure on the minister continued unabated. The Tory opposition has taken to calling the government "the Limo Liberals." That moniker could stick.
Excessive and unjustifiable expenses. Money paid to a business owner who donated to the Liberals. Attempts to deceive or obscure the facts.
Behold the glory of the triple-play.
Taxpayers could hardly be faulted for feeling frustrated by Philpott’s lack of self-restraint. As a journalist, however, I am giddy in the knowledge that, no matter how many of these stories erupt, another politician always seems to be willing to demonstrate his or her lack of prudence and accountability.
To be clear, this is not corruption. It’s not stealing or misappropriation or influence peddling. It’s sheer, unadulterated stupidity, aggravated by a healthy dose of naiveté. A self-inflicted wound that can become, in some instances, a fatal wound to a politician’s brand.
Little mystery surrounds the "how" of Philpott’s mistakes. Federal cabinet ministers are given access to enormous expense accounts and other resources to help them travel and conduct government business. They are important people who deserve to be treated relatively well while they conduct their duties.
However, cabinet ministers must also know they live under constant scrutiny from angry members of the public, opposition critics and single-issue lobbies whose sole purpose is to find those instances when politicians appear to be getting more than they deserve.
To make decisions in strict contravention of that reality is to invite disaster. With a cabinet shuffle possible in the coming days, we’ll quickly see just how close to disaster Philpott has come.
Some politicians have an instinct for staying away from this kind of trouble. Former Manitoba premiers Gary Filmon and Gary Doer were both renowned for their frugality. Former prime minister Stephen Harper was much the same; his staff would boast about how Harper paid for his own tickets to events at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, including opening and closing ceremonies, and the coveted gold medal men’s hockey game.
Successful politicians have an innate ability to sniff out expense trouble before it becomes a full-blown controversy. Others, not so much.
Former NDP premier Greg Selinger was forced to apologize, twice, after it was revealed members of his government accepted free Winnipeg Jets tickets. In most instances, these tickets fell below the monetary threshold ($250) at which MLAs must report gifts. But everyone knows that a Jets ticket, in this town, is worth more than its face value.
The first time, in 2012, Selinger admitted that more than a dozen of his caucus and cabinet members had accepted free tickets. The second time, in 2014, it was Selinger who admitted he had accepted a free ticket in 2011, a year before his MLAs and ministers got in trouble. Selinger said he had made a charitable donation equal to the value of the tickets, but it didn’t erase the fact he denied accepting a free ticket when questioned two years earlier.
The book on Selinger, even from his own people, was that he was a brilliant policy wonk but a failure when it came to basic political instincts. The hockey ticket kerfuffle certainly substantiated that scouting report.
Politics is tough, and governing is even tougher. Clearly, not everyone is wired with the instincts to see trouble before it becomes, well, trouble.
Philpott clearly couldn’t see trouble coming. But make no mistake, trouble has most definitely arrived.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.
Updated on Monday, August 22, 2016 at 7:38 AM CDT: Adds photo