Canadians are cheap. It’s ugly, it’s embarrassing, and we should get over it.
But we won’t.
Being cheap isn’t a new part of our national character. I wrote a column about it back in 2015, in fact. It was after a Conservative senator drew national ire for admittedly tone-deaf comments about airlines serving awful meals, including “ice cold Camembert with broken crackers.”
The senator, Nancy Ruth, had been asked about the-then raging scandal over Senate expenses. She was specifically asked if she was worried she’d be caught up in it. She laughed and said only that she might get dinged for perhaps inappropriately expensing the odd breakfast she shouldn’t have. That’s when she made the cheese-and-crackers comment about lousy airplane meals that set the nation off.
It was a bad moment for the senator, as I noted in my column at the time. But she was right about something. Ruth told reporters then that even though the auditor general was theoretically investigating expenses related to Senate business, most of the questions were about expensed meals, whose total costs couldn’t help but be trivial. “They’re really weird,” she said of the questions. I agreed with her. It was weird. It’s still weird.
We’re seeing the same weird and pathetic Canadian impulse now. Over the last few days, a series of reports have come out about spending (or not) relatively minor sums of money on government initiatives.
The Opposition Conservatives have been beating up on the Liberals for the prime minister’s gaffe-prone trip to India earlier this year. It cost $1.5 million. They’ve likewise been hammering the PM for recent upgrades to Harrington Lake, the Canadian prime minister’s official summer residence, which recently had a series of upgrades and additions that totalled tens of thousands of dollars (Justin Trudeau covered some specific costs personally). Recent reporting by CTV also revealed that Can Force One, the official name for the Royal Canadian Air Force passenger jet that ferries the prime minister of Canada around the country and the world, is in lousy condition.
This isn’t news, per se. The jet is 31 years old and is known to be somewhat elderly (that’s putting it mildly). But the latest news is yet more proof that the jet is old and needs replacement.
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There are common themes to all these stories: the Canadian government does a horrible job of taking care of itself. We are a fantastically rich G7 nation that can’t properly fund our own federal operations. This isn’t a mystery. It’s politics. Every prime minister and every government is horrified if being attacked for spending money on itself. Because they know the opposition will attack and the public will condemn. It’s a vicious circle.
And the problem is, they’re right. Canadians are petty and cheap when it comes to public officials. Every party, when in opposition, knows they can exploit that. Lately, it’s been the Tories beating up on the Liberals. It used to be the Liberals and NDP beating up on the Harper Tories. Trudeau indulged in a little retro-Harper Bashing this week, in fact, noting that Harper’s trip also cost a lot of money because special limos were flown in. Yes, they were: for security reasons … at the request of the RCMP.
Consider that for a moment. It’s absolutely bonkers. A Canadian prime minister was making a partisan point about the costs related to the protection of his predecessor … costs this prime minister knows full well are never, ever up to the PM of the day.
But this isn’t just aimed at Trudeau, because this isn’t a partisan problem. It transcends that. It’s a Canadian problem. Tories nickel-and-dime Liberals, Liberals return the favour for the Tories. A plague on all their houses. My country deserves better than this squabbling.
Canada deserves a mature political consensus that takes proper care of official residences, so they don’t fall into catastrophic disrepair as politicians let maintenance backlogs accrue because they’re afraid of being called names. Canada deserves an Air Force that has enough planes to do all the jobs required of it, including VIP transport, as well as enough money to maintain the squadrons and replace the planes that are aging out in a timely fashion. (It deserves a better military overall, but that was last week’s column.) It deserves properly defined and understood policies for hospitality and entertainment for public officials acting in their official capacity that err on the side of generosity.
Generosity, I stress. Not lavishness. Not luxurious excess. But Canadians should be happy to do their part to fund a proper government that represents the wealth and power of our nation with reasonable outlays on common expenses when we’re hosting the world or when our officials are travelling abroad.
More than anything, Canada needs a political culture, from the voters up, that understands that an impressive and well-maintained residence for a prime minister is an investment in Canada, not a frill for the temporary occupant of said residence. Ditto a cottage and transport jet, and routine costs of food and beverages at events. This is money spent on Canada, not a party or person. Or, in our current political culture, this is money we’re not spending on our country because a bunch of us don’t like the guy in the house. It’s absurd, but it’s also our normal.
There will always be excesses that need to be called out. I don’t deny that. Opposition criticism and public shaming are a necessary part of that. But it would be more effective if it weren’t typically so small beer, obsessed over the trivial. It’s hard to work up outrage over the genuine excesses of government when we’re losing our minds over nonsense. This is a bad habit that the Canadian public has been encouraged to indulge by opportunist politicians and lazy media for far too long. Enough’s enough.
Besides, my country is worth showing off with pride and attention to detail. If we won’t spend on our own reasonable trappings of state, why have a government at all?
Matt Gurney is host of The Exchange with Matt Gurney on Global News Radio 640 Toronto and a columnist for Global News.