Last month, I returned to Grenfell, Saskatchewan for a family funeral. The event was, of course, tragically sad. However, returning to small town Saskatchewan is always an eye opening experience. Grenfell is a small prairie town of about 700 people, a little more than an hour east of Regina on the #1 Highway. In many figurative ways, Grenfell could not be farther from the Ottawa Bubble. Residents of Grenfell generally, and certainly those in attendance at the funeral, were almost exclusively seniors and without exception, without any pretension.
There is a certain amount of common sense amongst prairie folk, an instinctive wisdom and moral compass that is frequently absent in the hustling city of Edmonton and in the Ottawa Bubble.
It was the beginning of May and admittedly we Conservatives were having a rough few weeks in Ottawa. Alleged underestimates in a military procurement were dominating national headlines. But the topic of mind had nothing to do with accounting discrepancies at DND and everything to do with Executive extravagance on Parliament Hill. During my trip to Saskatchewan, a story broke that Cabinet Ministers in Ottawa had collectively racked up $600,000 in overtime for limousine drivers—the vast majority of which was for “waiting time”, as Ministers attended to the nation’s business. Access to Information Records revealed that some Ministers’ drivers were logging as many as 20 hours/week in overtime and that one Minister charged taxpayers 1000 hours of overtime on top of an average salary for limousine drivers of $48,000.
This news came on the heels of well publicized reports of the misadventures of CIDA Minister Bev Oda, who on a Business Trip to London, charged taxpayer for $16 orange juice, $1000 a day limousine service and an upgrade to a hotel that allowed smoking. Ms. Oda’s indiscretions have been well publicized. She has apologized to the House (and to Canadians) and paid back the money.
But the $600,000 in limousine driver overtime did not play well with the small prairie town sensibilities. How could the average payout be $20,000 and how could the chart topping Minister’s driver rack up $40,000 in overtime charges???
Admittedly, I had no answers. The Cabinet Minister Limousine Service represents one of the most egregious displays of Ottawa opulence. Every Minister is entitled to a vehicle and a driver. For security reasons, I do not take issue with Ministers being chauffeured to events around the Nation’s Capital. But there is little justification for Ministers being driven around the Parliamentary Precincts, especially when the House of Commons also operates a continuous Shuttle Bus Service for MPs and all Parliamentary Staff.
But the worst waste of taxpayer money involves the 6,548 hours of standby service limo drivers recorded in 2011. The House of Commons frequently sits until late at night and if votes are being recorded, conceivably more than 30 limousines complete with drivers, will be parked outside Center Block for hours; the whole time overtime being charged for this standby “service”.
Surely there is a more cost effective method of getting Cabinet Ministers to and from meetings. Surely, as government preaches fiscal discipline such extravagance must be eliminated. Surely, having limo drivers on standby for hours is a waste of taxpayer dollars. Surely, there are taxis available in Ottawa.
In Grenfell, most of the attendees have never ridden in a limo and none of them have ever drunk $16 orange juice. Surely, they would appreciate if government took more care in spending their money.