COMMENTARY: Extravagant GG expenses will only tarnish the position

Former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson speaks as she donates the Clarkson Cup to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto on March 7, 2013. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he'll reconsider the perks and supports Canada gives former Governors General.
Former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson speaks as she donates the Clarkson Cup to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto on March 7, 2013. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he'll reconsider the perks and supports Canada gives former Governors General. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

The position of Governor General does and should have some prestige. We provide our Governor General with an official residence and a generous salary of just over $288,000. After leaving office, Governors General are entitled to an annuity — a pension, essentially — valued at just over $140,000 annually.

To Canadians who would just as soon see the position – and our constitutional monarchy system itself – vanish, this is all an unnecessary expenditure of public funds and an argument in favour of dismantling these royal trappings.

Canadians, for the most part, still value our system and the traditions embodied therein. As such, these costs are not necessarily unreasonable. However, that generosity and tolerance is not limitless.

If Canadians start to feel as though they’re being taken advantage of, they may start to question the value of the position itself. This would not be helpful and it is incumbent on the government to get ahead of this issue as quickly as possible.

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Which brings us to former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson and revelations this week about her ongoing public expense claims.

WATCH: Canada quiz with Adrienne Clarkson

It turns out that as much as we know about the perks of being a Governor General, or a former occupant of the office, there is still much that the public is in the dark about. Up until this past week, for example, Canadians did not know about the approximately $1.1 million in expenses claimed by Clarkson.

READ MORE: Former astronaut Julie Payette sworn in as Canada’s 29th Governor General

The National Post revealed this information — information that might not otherwise been available had Clarkson not claimed above $100,000 in nine of the fiscal years since she left office back in 2005. Because the amount was over that threshold, it shows up in the federal government’s public accounts.

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For all we know, other former Governors General may have made or may still be making similar but less extravagant claims. And indeed, it seems, they are entitled to do so. This doesn’t necessarily need to end altogether, but it needs to be much more modest than it is and certainly a lot more transparent than it has been.

WATCH: Former Governors General Clarkson and Jean embrace ahead of PM ceremony

For her part, Clarkson has defended all of this, writing yesterday in the Globe and Mail about her belief in the importance of remaining a public figure and citing all of the public speeches and appearances that she has made in the years since leaving Rideau Hall.

Clarkson is certainty entitled to take this point of view, and she is obviously not the one who created or maintained this policy. Her expenses are not illegal or otherwise illegitimate, but at the same time, we don’t know the specifics of her claims or why they appear to be so much higher than any other former holder of the office.

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READ MORE: Julie Payette calls first year as Governor General ‘quite a ride’ on Canada’s 151st birthday

One could make an argument that former prime ministers or premiers might have a similar obligation or interest in remaining public figures and engaging the public in a similar way. That does not justify this kind of public expense.

Clarkson probably isn’t the most objective voice on this, either. During Clarkson’s tenure as Governor General, there was concern raised about extravagant spending by her office and in 2011, we learned about her claiming $500,000 in so-called “temporary” secretarial services. Perhaps, then, Clarkson’s impassioned defence of her use of taxpayer dollars ought not be the final word on the matter.

To his credit, the prime minister has acknowledged that Canadians expect a certain amount of transparency and accountability when it comes to supporting those who have served as Governor General.

He has pledged a review of the rules to ensure that “best practices” are being followed. Hopefully, this is not mere spin in response to awkward headlines and actually represents a determination to bring about some meaningful change.

READ MORE: Roy Green: Adrienne Clarkson, as before, remains entitled to her entitlements

If Canadians instead come to view Governors General as entitled elite who exist only to provide a drain on the public purse, then the position will become tarnished and the credibility of an important institution will erode.

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Canadians have been more than generous when it comes to supporting those who have stepped in to fill this important duty but that does not mean we are obligated to sign off a blank cheque to them.

Rob Breakenridge is host of “Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” on Global News Radio 770 Calgary and a commentator for Global News.