By Richard Forbes.
Members gathered on the hill this week to resume their time-honoured tradition of slagging each other with the new fall sitting of parliament; it was a slow, humdrum performance on the part of those involved, with most of the opposition’s distinguished critics having being relegated to the backbenches as they seek to win the party’s leadership. Equally uninspiring too was the efforts of the country’s newspaper of record to dredge up some fresh new controversy in the hopes, ultimately, of denting the the prime minister’s Teflon socks and throwing the new government off its game (that’s ‘new’ in the ‘New Democratic Party’ sense of the word.)
The Globe and Mail, hijacking Question Period with something better at selling papers than (yawn) electoral reform, broke, not one, but two ‘scandals’ this week almost not worthy of discussing further. It’s not impossible that by the time you’ve begun reading this column, the scandals in question have already have been laid to rest. For that, we sincerely apologize. Canada’s micro-scandals, without impeccably poor timing, typically suffer a fate not unlike a comet: they’re a dime a dozen and rarely make a surface impact; when they aren’t whizzing past us at 250 km/h, they exhaust the short remit of their natural life, burning up in the mesosphere, a dark and cold place where scandals – like Chrétien’s Shawinigate, Mulroney’s Guccigate or Trudeau’s Nannygate – go to die.
The first of those scandals began in earnest with the Globe’s Laura Stone revealing it was Trudeau’s top staffers, Katie Telford and Gerald Butts, who expensed $200,000 in moving fees, mostly related to lawyer fees and taxes, during the transition of power last year.
The staffers, as the Liberals were quick to note, did not break any rules. Rather, the spending in question is a product of an obscure relocation policy that’s been in practice since the 70s; the policy allows exempt staff in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and bureaucrats in the civil service to expense their relocation fees, after first submitting them to be signed off by government contractor Brookfield GRS. The opposition benches naturally rose to the occasion: condemning the party for its contemptible disregard for taxpayer’s money, calling the spending ‘outrageous.’ As a result, the opposition spent their opportunity this week to grill the government for its new ‘patchwork’ carbon plan or the lack of a new Health Accord, discussing the price of real estate in Toronto instead.
In fairness, however, this ‘scandal’ has brought some much deserved attention on existing government policy in those regards: transparency laws made it very difficult to find what the moving costs were for previous PMOs, while expensing relocation fees costs the public purse annually about $1B altogether, which is in and of itself not an inexpensive figure. The new government is now proposing an update to its relocation policies and it’s a promise worth keeping. While the ‘government must attract talent with perks’ remains an uneasy but common defense for every partisan of their party’s spending, the truth is the government is a public institution using public money in the public’s interest, so it ought to always strive to be low cost where it can to free up money in the public interest.
There’s a thin line between reasonable and unreasonable expenses and a capless policy that, in theory, allows an infinite sum of money to be claimed in moving fees crosses that line. It’s helplessly unclear and unreasonable to have staffers try to judge for themselves, without any clear limitations, what’s a ‘reasonable’ and ‘unreasonable’ moving expense.
Butts and Telford would soon break from their party’s defense by the week’s end in apologizing for the expenses, promising to pay back some $65,000 in various fees and taxes. And while it may might be a strategic about-face, it’s also one that comes with liabilities: namely, admitting fault for something you’ve done, only after being calling out for doing it and spending several days letting officials defend it as acceptable. Yet, often these kinds of apologies, not just in politics, but in everything, (you name it: celebrity scandals, corporate faux pas etc.) have this strange, all-consuming power to convince the public to forget, if not forgive, and let the news cycle move on.
And just as the Liberals found it difficult to defend these expenses, the Conservatives equally found it a challenge to defend their outrage; especially as the previous administration’s similar track record was revealed. One Tory PMO staffer reportedly expensed $93,000 in moving fees, for example.
For the Tories, the blow-back they’ve received on this issue is yet another sign of what an awkward transition this year has been for them to serving in opposition. The Tories thought they could cash in on their reputation as penny pinchers once in opposition only to find they spent it all when they were in office on overpriced orange juice. Every government scandal they’ve brought to the attention of the public so far has been met with a Harper equivalent, dismissing their own credibility as the government’s critics.
Unfortunately however, this scandal was not the only ‘scandal’ to grace our country this week. Far from it, rather. Political journalist Rob Fife put the ‘gate’ in ‘investigate’ this Thursday, when he shocked everyone in revealing that – contrary to popular belief – he was in fact still alive and working for the Globe and Mail. He did so while spilling the beans in a rather strange article that revealed that Democratic reform minister Maryam Monsef was born in Iran, rather than Afghanistan, as she had been led to believe. Equally shocking, but not covered by Fife: Dominic LeBlanc, a proud Maritimer was born in Ottawa, PEI Senator Mike Duffy actually was born in Charlottetown, Stephen Harper was born and raised in Toronto despite representing Alberta for most of his political career and Harjit Sajjan was not born in India, but in fact, a blazing supernova of cool. Be amazed, folks.
Reaction to these revelations about Monsef’s birthplace naturally came swiftly…
Conservative MP, Michelle Rempel, for one, continued demonstrating her concern for refugees by showing her ‘concern’ that Monsef‘s place of birth may have been ‘misstated’ on her citizenship application (a red herring in the case of citizenship applications, according to officials, since citizenship is not a birthright in Iran) and that the minister may need a diplomatic passport now (an outrageously false claim.) With concern like this, refugees and migrants may start begging for less concern for their well-being from the opposition’s immigration critic, lest they be deported.
Then there was Conservative MP Tony Clement, still desperately trying to get media attention for his ailing leadership campaign, who called for an investigation into Monsef’s origins, suggesting she ought to step down as a minister in the event of said investigation.
And journalist Althia Raj, who condescendingly reported on Monsef’s apology:
The Toronto Sun published a massive, runny dump of an editorial, which, if you can read it while wafting the bugs and insects away, calls for Monsef to step down.
Not to be out done, Dean Del Mastro, former Conservative MP, called out his successor in Peterborough for lying to the public. ‘(Monsef) saying she didn’t know until last week is not true,’ Mastro writes on Facebook. ‘A lot of people were aware of this. It was not a well-kept secret to people running campaigns.’ Adorably, he added with bitter scorn: ‘Maryam Monsef ran a campaign attacking my integrity,’ which is tough talk for someone currently out of jail pending a second appeal on bail.
If you’re not as outraged as these journos and politicians, you have a right not to be.
These personal revelations came as a genuine shock to Monsef, who held an emotional press conference to discuss how she had been forced to tearfully confront her own mother (who had thought the detail was unimportant.) It’s also deeply inconsequential to almost anything: Monsef was still an Afghan citizen and raised as an Afghan, she and her family still fled violence as refugees. The difference this revelation makes to her life story is marginal at best: she was simply born on the other side of the Iran-Afghanistan border.
To have her own background and her and her mother’s honesty questioned on a public stage in this manner is both incredibly unfair to her, but it also calls into question the treatment that foreign-born MPs are to receive from the media (I doubt very much Fife preoccupied his time at the Canadian Press in the 80s trying to confirm whether John Crosbie was in fact born in Newfoundland, but indeed it seems Crosbie was.)
These scandals, as lame as scandals come, are the ugly children of a fourth estate desperately looking to raise the stakes of the incoming fall sitting and sell newspapers; the moral of these stories, thin and gruely as they are, is the importance of owning up to the truth, however hard. While its impatience for a sensational story is characteristic of the modern news cycle – a monster with a million insatiable heads, eating and digesting any story it’s given, minute by minute – so much so even that the most trivial of non-stories can look appetizing for a newspaper with columns to fill and revenue to generate.
The consequence of this petulance is a public that grows ever politically illiterate and needlessly cynical as a result, which inadvertently perpetuates a most perverse cycle: as the public distances itself from politics, the press responds with even more apolitical and sensationalist stories about their government’s antics to pique their readership’s interests. Our hopes that Trudeau’s ‘new way of doing politics’ might end such a cycle were forlorn in some respects, for it was always a double-edged decline. The government may have changed, but it’s inherited the same old tired press gallery.
Richard Forbes studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. Winner of the Peter Woolstencroft Prize in Canadian Politics (2015).
When asked (usually by confused old women) what ‘one does exactly’ with said degree, he laughs and politely declines to answer. A perfect night for him involves a cup of Lady Grey, writing and a re-run of Yes Minister.