Our outrage over a dwindling sum of abused money is damaging Canadians’ perceptions of politicians and public servants

Justice John Gomery’s first report provides ample opportunity for those who wish to add their voices to the howls of outrage over “the biggest scandal in Canadian history” (according to Opposition leader Stephen Harper).

However, Judge Gomery offers another service that should cause blood to flow, not just into our throats, but also to our heads, for the complete picture he paints now allows us — for the first time — to give more precise measure to the scandal that has been seizing the political imagination for almost two years.

That there was something amiss in the communications-contracting operation of Public Works was known for some time. An internal audit in 1996 was followed by another in 2000 that discovered continued “administrative irregularities” in the tendering and payment of sponsorship programs.

Alerting her fine nose for unearthing dirt, the audit drew the attention of Auditor General Sheila Fraser who turned her flinty gaze to the department in her 2003 report. Obviously not garnering the attention she was seeking — and notwithstanding the fact that the RCMP had already been called in to investigate criminal wrongdoing in the case — Ms. Fraser chose to report on the scandal in more detail once again in February 2004, this time adding her editorial “outrage” about the breaking of “every rule in the book.” This seemed to have the desired effect and the political agenda has been cast in the shadow of Adscam ever since.

The first headlines trumpeted a scandal involving $250 million of misspending. A closer read of the story revealed that the sum in question was actually laid out over five years, so the amount was now reduced to $50 million per year. Ms. Fraser herself (almost reluctantly) admitted that of the total, she could account for $150 million in legitimate expenditures on media and materials used for sponsorships, thus reducing again the amount that was doled out for “little or no work” to $100 million or approximately $20 million per year.

After 14 months of hearings and review, and a budget of $32 million, Judge Gomery allows us to calibrate this figure with even more precision.

In fact, the sponsorship program occurred over a nine-year period and spent a total of $332 million, $147 million of which was paid out in commissions, mainly to five Quebec-based advertising firms. Thus the more complete Gomery findings indicate that the largest potential amount that might have been dispensed for “little or no work” was closer to $15 million per year.

When tolled, the government of Canada has now estimated that a maximum of $57 million might have been misappropriated and is now seeking this amount in a civil suit against the ad agencies in question. Seen another way, it is now clear that the full sum of public funds that could have possibly been put to illegitimate or illegal ends adds up to an average of $6.3 million per year for the nine years in question.

While nowhere near the gargantuan sums first claimed, this isn’t chump change and as citizens we have every right to expect that our hard-earned dollars, sent to government coffers, should be used exclusively for the purposes that our representatives intended.

Above and beyond the actual dollar amounts involved however, this imbroglio has had serious — and possibly permanent — repercussions for the way we see political parties, politicians and public servants.

The implicit — and often explicit — message of the Gomery inquiry has been that those who toil in the trenches of party politics are crooks; our politicians cannot be trusted to pursue the public interest over their own; and our public service is rife with graft, corruption and sloth.

This, however, is not the conclusion we should be drawing from Judge Gomery’s report.

With the benefit of the testimony he has gathered — and aided by a little perspective and distance from the media and opposition hyperventilation that has often accompanied the more incendiary parts of that testimony — we are able to gauge the full scope of the malfeasance that has taken place.

The groundwork for this scandal was an ill-conceived program, designed with dubious intentions. Indeed, for some of us, the notion that the hearts and minds of Quebecers could be won over by displaying logos at sport fishing and hunting trade shows or by handing out government of Canada trinkets is almost as breathtaking as the wrongdoing that followed.

Because its genesis was born out of the hubris that this was “nation saving,” the sponsorship program assumed a political patina that shielded it from the normal compliance and control systems that oversee virtually all other government spending. For this reason, Judge Gomery is right to hold former prime minister Jean Chretien, his chief of staff, Jean Pelletier, and public works minister Alfonso Gagliano responsible for the “culture of entitlement” that permeates this story. We should note, however, that none of these individuals received any personal gain from their activities and that no other ministers or MPs were found responsible in any way.

What we know now is that this is a story of a rogue public servant who interpreted his political masters’ wishes as a mandate for which the normal rules need not apply. Within that environment, it was a small step for Chuck Guite to conclude that enriching himself and a few select friends in the advertising community was acceptable as well.

It is also a story of a few opportunistic operatives within the Liberal party who decided to fleece a handful of remarkably naive — and ethically impaired — advertising executives. Indeed, it is telling that Paul Coffin and Jean Brault, the two ad men subject to criminal charges in this affair, had virtually no experience and background with the Liberal party before the sponsorship program.

They were told by unsupervised Liberal fundraisers that the key to garnering government contracts is tollgating, kickbacks and padding payrolls. That the more experienced Liberal ad agencies — such as BCP — were spared Judge Gomery’s wrath is testament to the fact that anyone who has actually worked for a political party or garnered government work based on the merits of their proposals, knows very well that this is most emphatically not how the system works.

To the contrary, in my experience the political masters insist that their most valued suppliers remain beyond reproach to ensure their services are not denied to them when it really matters — in election campaigns. In the same way, rather than court known partisans, bureaucrats avoid them for fear of sullying their own reputations with any hint of political favouritism.

In the end — considering that the federal government manages $200 billion of taxpayers’ money every year — this scandal accounts for .0003 per cent of that total. If I entrusted 250,000 people (roughly the number of public servants employed by the government of Canada) each with a dollar of my money and then found that out of this quarter of a million dollars, 75 cents had gone missing, I would be justified in asking for the whereabouts of even that small amount. And if I discovered that amount had been misappropriated in any way, I would have every right to demand an accounting and to identify the people responsible.

This is a justified and normal response to obvious theft. But it is neither justified nor normal to conclude that my money had been grossly mismanaged by the quarter million people I entrusted it to.

The fact is that our governments manage our tax dollars with the utmost of professionalism and that systems of compliance, control and audit are more stringent than in any private-sector equivalent.

Witness David Dingwall’s nefarious reimbursement for chewing gum. Virtually lost in the quivering outrage over this affair was the small news item that reported the expense claim actually had been caught and rejected. I would challenge any other employer to match an oversight system that could or would have the capacity to do the same with a CEO’s expense claim for under $2.

In the same vein — and without extending any excuse or refuge to the Liberal operatives who abused their trust — my experience is that virtually all party workers are motivated, not by gain, but by community service, and volunteer countless hours without any prospect of reward or even

The Gomery report paints a sordid picture of contempt for the sanctity of taxpayers’ dollars and the trust we must properly place in government and our elected officials. But a sober reflection on the bigger picture should also indicate that this behaviour is an aberration, and not the norm in
either politics or public service.

Just as it serves no positive purpose to turn a blind eye to malfeasance, especially when it involves public funds, we do ourselves an equal disservice when we succumb to craven cynicism and blunt our capacity to determine when we are actually being governed well and when we are not.

Allan R. Gregg is chair of The Strategic Counsel, a national public opinion and research firm.

Between 1979 and 1993 he was official pollster for the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada.