On Monday, the Yukon Conservative Association held its annual charity barbecue. MP Ryan Leef, joined by Tony Clement, President of the Treasury Board, manned the coals to raise some very badly needed funds for the Whitehorse Food Bank.
Praiseworthy as it is for politicians to mix with the folk, to don the apron and to dishout the burgers for a worthy cause, I must say that, as a supporter of the food bank, I’m a little disappointed. When I heard Tony Clement was on the program, I was hoping for bigger things. They say around Parry Sound that when Clement takes it into his head to spread the cash around, you’d better duck.
When Canada hosted the G8 Summit in 2010, the Conservative government chose the Ontario cottage country town of Huntsville, in Clement’s riding of Parry Sound – Muskoka, as the venue. The area was looking a little run down, so the government decided to invest some money to spruce the place up for their important visitors.
It put $1.14 million into sidewalks in Parry Sound, which nobody from the summit ever set foot on because it’s too far away.
It put $3.5 million into prettying up the Huntsville airport, where the world leaders neither landed nor took off. It built the famous $745,000 gazebo in Orville, a tiny, out-of-the-way place that would rather have had a skating rink.
All of this could be dismissed as bureaucratic bungling, except that the bureaucracy had very little to do with it. An auditor general’s report released this June found Clement and Conservative party staffers spent $45.7 million of public funds in Parry Sound – Muskoka, without leaving a paper trail.
Not only did the Conservatives cut out the boring paperwork, they managed to avoid all that messy business of parliamentary oversight. The $50 million Clement and his political aides splashed around the riding came from an infrastructure fund to reduce congestion at the border. It’s fortunate there wasn’t too much reporting required, it would have been a nuisance trying to explain how a gazebo in the Muskokas would reduce congestion 300 kilometres away.
The Harper government dismissed the findings in the June AG report as evidence of nothing more than sloppy bookkeeping, and promised to do better next time. Others saw the misappropriation of public funds as a violation of the Criminal Code of Canada. The Appropriations Act forbids governments to spend money without parliamentary approval, and no such approval was ever given for the G8 spruce-up. It’s not likely that Harper will call the Mounties in to investigate though; he promoted Clement to the Treasury Board after the controversy surfaced. So guess who’s in charge of investigations into misuse of public funds?
A couple of weeks ago, NDP researchers, using access to information requests, uncovered new details about the G8 spending.
According to Muskoka municipal documents, during the 2008 election Clement went around the riding holding meetings with mayors and councillors to identify suitable projects for the G8 slush fund. Within days, he had posted video endorsements on his campaign website from “local townspeople, mayors and council members.”
Tony Clement’s entry into national politics wasn’t a smooth one. He was soundly defeated in Brampton in 2004, and squeaked in by 28 votes in Muskoka in 2006. Still, as a graduate of the Mike Harris provincial government he was welcomed into the Harper cabinet. As health minister, he was on point for the government’s anti-harm-reduction policies, and took the boos at international conferences for the Conservatives’ backward views on drug addiction and AIDS.
Naturally, the party wanted to give his chances a little boost at election time. But did they have to be so blatant?
The highest amount spent on civic improvements for a G8 summit in the past has been about $5 million, or one-tenth the amount spent by Clement’s political staff. Just for the sake of comparison, the public funds involved in the Sponsorship Scandal that brought down the Martin Liberals was $150 million, or just three times the Clement slush fund.
There are a lot of people in need in Whitehorse, and we’re glad to see the food bank get all the help it can.
The barbecue really was a good and generous gesture on the part of a busy man like Clement. I’m sure Leef appreciated the exposure he got from flipping burgers with the Treasury Board President.
As a matter of fact, next time Clement wants to impress his own constituents he might try putting on that blue apron in Orville. Barbecuing’s not as splashy as a $50-million giveaway, but at least it’s honest work.
Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.