The revelation that the RCMP spent $23 million buying more than 600 new cars for use at this year’s G7 summit, and are now trying to sell them off second-hand, suggests a culture that spends with impunity.
The police force decided it wanted 631 new cars for “operational reasons” it won’t discuss. Having decided what they wanted, rather than what they might need, they went through the motions of a cost analysis.
Buying the cars was more affordable than leasing them, an RCMP spokeswoman told the National Post’s Marie-Danielle Smith, pointing to an analysis of leasing costs versus depreciation over a one-year period. But it’s clear the RCMP did not need 631 cars. Why else would 13 of the 29 Chrysler 300 vehicles put up for auction have mileage of less than 77km? They had barely been driven off the lot before they were auctioned at about a 30 per cent discount.
The story is the same for most of the rest of cars on sale at the government surplus site. Ford Escapes with an average of 2,060 km on the clock that normally retail for between $33,000 and $43,000 are selling for an average of $22,338. The Liberal government had created a novel stimulus spending program for the auto industry, with all the details cloaked behind the usual camouflage of secret “operational requirements.”
It’s too bad the identity of the buyers of the 167 cars already sold on the government surplus site are not public — it would be highly embarrassing for the Mounties were it to emerge that any of its members are driving around in shiny, almost-new Chevy Suburbans.
But the case reflects a wider malaise.
There are revelations on a daily basis about questionable spending decisions in government. This past week alone the Post has shed light on former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson taking full advantage of generous public support 15 years after leaving office, and the tale of the Indigenous employment training program that could only be reformed with an extra $100 million of public money.
Governments have always relied on the indifference of the majority to facilitate their natural inclination to spend, spend, spend. We are currently at peak indifference.
When the Liberals said in their first budget that deficits would be quadruple what they had promised in their election platform, they signalled to the broader public service that they had permission to spend. People familiar with the budget process in 2016 said the imperative inside the government was to get as much policy out of the door as possible and “damn the cost.” Finance minister Bill Morneau drew a line in the sand on the deficit at $30 billion, which was hailed as a triumph of fiscal restraint. The suggestion is that it could easily have been $50 billion.
But it was a signal that the culture in Ottawa had changed and that the bureaucracy should bring forward proposals that had for years been gathering dust.
Stephen Harper’s Conservatives were not whiter than white when it came to spending scandals. In fact, the 2010 G8 and G20 summits, held consecutively in Huntsville, Ont., and downtown Toronto, probably drew the admiration of spendthrift Liberals for the creative ways in which they frittered away millions. The $857 million spent on the summits included $57,000 for the “fake lake,” an attempt to recreate the charm of Muskoka cottage country in a downtown Toronto exhibition centre, and a $50-million infrastructure fund to ease border congestion that ended up prettying up parks and building a gazebo in Tony Clement’s riding of Parry Sound-Muskoka, hundreds of kilometres from the border.
But Bev Oda’s $16 orange juice aside, that was pretty much it for Conservative hoggishness. After racking up a deficit of $55.6 billion in 2009-10, the Harper government spent the rest of its time in office committed to getting the budget back into balance.
The Deficit Reduction Action Plan was brutal for the public service, which suffered salary and hiring freezes, workplace stress and increased workloads. But savings in public service spending were undeniable, pegged by the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy at around $13.7 billion a year, or 26,000 full-time equivalent positions.
As usual with programs that are driven by ideology rather than pragmatism, the DRAP went too far.
The Harper government claimed it was cutting costs but leaving services untouched. Kevin Page, then the parliamentary budget officer, tried to find out whether the spending cuts had affected service levels but departments would not supply him with the information.
It was only when he left government and set up the IFSD at the University of Ottawa that he was able to show categorically that services had been affected — Veteran’s Affairs closed nine service centres; reaction times at the Canadian Coast Guard were slower; the Canadian Border Services Agency showed a drop in the number of fake passports detected; and so on.
At a macroeconomic level, there was also criticism about shedding public service jobs during a recession. A report by former Bank of Canada governor David Dodge and economist Richard Dion suggested Harper sacrificed economic growth after the recession in order to improve a debt position that was already solid.
But whatever its shortcomings, the DRAP brought a swift end to the culture of dissipation in the public service.
For the bureaucracy, the 2015 election of a Liberal government meant happy days were back. The Conservatives had projected they would spend 12.9 per cent of GDP on programs in 2017-18, or $282.7 billion, had they won re-election. The recent annual financial report for the 2017-18 fiscal year revealed the Trudeau government spent 14.5 per cent of GDP, or $310.7 billion.
When the purse-strings are that loose, and you’re tasked with security for seven world leaders, why worry about the cost? Just decide how many vehicles you want and then pretend to shop around.
It is a hallmark of this government that waste has become embedded in the way it does business.
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