Flying high on the taxpayer dime

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It has been quite the summer for revelations about political expense accounts and the pay and perks of politicians.

Beyond the criminal behaviour (former federal Liberal cabinet minister Joe Fontana's conviction for fraud, forgery and breach of trust) and alleged malfeasance (the 31 charges laid against P.E.I. Conservative Senator Mike Duffy), there was the more "routine" and non-criminal but eye-popping revelations, such as:

Kwikwetlem First Nation Chief Ron Giesbrecht and his $914,219 in compensation in that band's most recent fiscal year, and the damning Alberta Auditor General's report on Alison Redford's approach to her time as premier, using government airplanes unnecessarily and lavishly, including on occasion for partisan and personal ends.

Additional checks and balances might help end some of the abuse. But there will always be people who skirt the rules. As Auditor General Merwan Saher noted about the recent Alberta disclosures, "You can't write a rule for everything, ultimately, what's needed are principles."

Exactly. So what might be additionally helpful is to ponder when and where tax dollars are appropriately spent, with questions to that end.

Principle One: What's the standard in the private and non-profit sector, i.e., where most people work?

In the case of travel, consider a company with annual revenues of $49.4 billion (thus akin to the Alberta government last year). The chief executive of that company is not likely to be excoriated by her board or shareholders if her daughter occasionally accompanies her on a company aircraft - assuming the flight was for business anyway. The marginal cost of having a family member along for the trip is almost nil.

The real issue is whether the company - or a government - should maintain a fleet of aircraft, or charter a flight, or use commercial flights.

The answer will always vary depending on the example. A backbench politician in Canada should probably always fly economy. But few would seriously assert Bill Gates should waste his company's time by rubbing shoulders with the rest of us in the security line-up instead of zipping around in his own jet.

Nor would anyone with a modicum of sense assert a nation's leader should fly commercial, both for reasons of security and for management of time and resources.

More generally though, and the high-level exceptions aside, another matter must be considered when tax dollars are in play: unlike a company where shareholders can sell their shares or consumers can choose not to patronize its products, taxpayers are "on board" with all government expenses. That requires more judiciousness.

That leads us to Principle Two, in the form of another question: Is the person worth the expense?

Let's go back to Kwikwetlem's Chief Giesbrecht and the federal government's new legislation that requires First Nations governments to file disclosures about political pay and perks. Such required transparency has long been in effect for federal, provincial and municipal politicians. Applying the same to reserve politicians has now led to the disclosure of salaries and Giesbrecht's almost $1-million tax-free compensation package.

But consider this: such transparency also led to the knowledge that one British Columbia chief, Osoyoos Indian Band Chief Clarence Louie, made $146,369 last year.

Question: Should Louie's band members or the taxpaying public be concerned, jealous or annoyed? Not if they know anything about the success story of that particular Osoyoos band.

Over the decades, Chief Louie and his colleagues have leveraged their reserve into prosperity with a winery, hotel and resort, business park and golf course among other profitable band-run businesses.

In other words, Louie and his staff are worth every penny and it would be pound-foolish to be upset at his compensation. In contrast, what sticks in most people's craw, quite understandably, is that few think the value-for-money equation was there for a now former Alberta premier.

Mark Milke is a Senior Fellow at the Fraser Institute. www.troymedia.com

Organizations: Kwikwetlem First Nation, First Nations

Geographic location: Alberta, Canada, British Columbia

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