Spending gaffes should remind Liberals of Duffy

By Michael Den Tandt, Postmedia Network

Gino Donato/Sudbury Star
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses the media Monday as  his ministers look on after wrapping up a two-day cabinet retreat in Sudbury.

Gino Donato/Sudbury Star Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses the media Monday as his ministers look on after wrapping up a two-day cabinet retreat in Sudbury.

The Liberal party's historical Achilles' heel is profligacy. Grits are arrogant wastrels, goes the narrative.

This was the storyline that won Brian Mulroney a majority in 1984. It was the storyline that put Stephen Harper in power in 2006. And it was the narrative Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals were feeding by the day, until they moved late Thursday to lance a rising boil they could easily have avoided.

The reported $200,000-plus combined moving expenses of Trudeau's principal secretary, Gerald Butts, and his chief of staff, Katie Telford, was not about to devolve into another scandal on the Mike Duffy scale. As a PMO spokesperson said Wednesday, and Trudeau and other Liberals argued Thursday, the expense claims in question, which Butts and Telford have now agreed to partially repay, were made in accordance with long-standing Treasury Board guidelines.

The optics could hardly have been worse, given Liberal rhetoric about helping the average family, and that most of the four dozen staffers who moved to Ottawa to work for the new government expensed a fraction of these sums. Moreover, the Globe and Mail reported that both Butts and Telford garnered substantial gains from the sale of their homes in Toronto's hot real estate market.

How can it be that no one thought, when the moment came to sign these expense cheques: "How would this look as a headline?" The entire Trudeau team arrived in the Langevin Block with a copy of Dan Gardner's 2015 book, Superforecasting - The Art and Science of Prediction.

It's a warning about the perils of groupthink, the institutional inability to view one's actions from the point of view of an impartial outsider.

Why then did this PMO apparently not perceive how the growing list of spending missteps imperiled its agenda, until one blew up in its face?

Consider Health Minister Jane Philpott and her $1,700 limo bill; Environment Minister Catherine McKenna and her $6,600 photographer bill; and Justice Minister Jody Wilson Raybould's billing her department for meals that should have been billed to the Liberal party. Let's recall this much about the Mike Duffy affair: In early May of 2013, before that story broke, the Harper government had a discernible agenda, and some momentum. By late May, and for the remainder of its majority term, it was playing defence.

The PMO's handling of the moving-expense issue, which saw the governing side hammered Thursday in question period, was clumsy. Rather than getting out ahead of the story, they released details piecemeal, under pressure. The net effect was to make them look shell-shocked and amateurish, rather than honest and transparent. That reality apparently sank in Thursday afternoon.

Liberal House Leader Bardish Chagger's attempt Wednesday to turn an opposition query about PMO spending into an ode to the middle class drew peals of laughter from the opposition. Her sallies Thursday in question period were no more persuasive.

There is an additional remedy here, beyond the partial reimbursements offered by Butts and Telford. It is not complicated. The Liberals could repay all staff moving expenses that were incurred above a reasonable benchmark - say $20,000 - from party funds. These are still tax-subsidized to a degree, but never mind: The boil would ease further.

They could eat more humble pie, in other words.

At 48 per cent support, with a host of important decisions looming, Trudeau and his advisors may have believed the cut-and-thrust over spending is no big deal. No longer. They appear to have belatedly remembered Duffy, and Bev Oda's $16 glass of orange juice, and seen the error of their ways.

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