Rideau Hall won’t say how much former governors general have billed Canadian taxpayers for travel by their spouses after leaving office under a controversial expense reimbursement program.
While the program has existed since 1979, it has come under renewed criticism amid concerns that former governor general Julie Payette is on track to have access to up to $206,000 each year in expenses paid for by Canadians, despite resigning over an independent report into workplace bullying.
Payette, who has come under fire before over expensive renovations to Rideau Hall, would not be required to disclose any of the expenses she gets reimbursed to the public.
That’s in stark contrast to the more stringent reporting requirements placed on public office holders.
“The policy governing the expense account program for former Governors general is currently under review,” said Rob McKinnon, spokesperson for Rideau Hall, when asked whether and how often former governors general have claimed expenses for the travel and hospitality incurred by their spouses.
“The Office of the Secretary to the Governor General is unable to provide this level of detail.”
Following several days of repeated requests to multiple government departments for clarity on the terms of the program, Global News obtained a copy of the original 1979 Treasury Board authorization that created the expense program.
According to that authorization, the government is permitted to cover the expenses of former governors general “including those incurred on behalf of their spouses.”
The authorization lists the expenses that are eligible for reimbursement.
Those eligible expenses include setting up and maintaining office space, staff and equipment, as well as costs incurred while carrying out activities related to their former role.
But the authorization also allows for former governors general to get reimbursed for “the payment of travel expenses of the former Governor General, his spouse and/or members of his office who need to accompany him insofar as such expenses fall within the terms of reference of the policy.”
It notes that this includes “the reimbursement of reasonable expenses incurred by the former Governor General in returning hospitality received by him or by his spouse in the discharge of public duties falling clearly within the terms of reference of the policy.”
McKinnon said the cap set on expenses that can be incurred per year by each former governor general is $206,000, and noted that the expense account for former governors general only transfers in full to the spouse if the former governor general dies.
In that case, the surviving spouse — or estate — gets access to the expense account for six months.
“The Treasury Board decision in 1979 that authorizes an expense account for former Governors general for activities related to their former role does not apply to the spouses of former Governors general except in the case of the death of a former Governor general, in which case the spouse (or the estate) will have the expense extended to them for a period of six months,” said McKinnon.
“If a spouse travels with the former Governor general in support during activities related to their time as Governor general, then those related expenses would be covered under the 1979 Treasury Board policy.”
With Payette’s resignation, Canada now has four living former governors general, meaning taxpayers could be footing the bill for up to $824,000 per year in expenses incurred by former occupants of the office, not counting the grants those individuals get to set up charities, plus their annuities.
The Governor General Act lays out that each former governor general is entitled to an annuity of roughly $150,000 per year, or in the ballpark of $576,000 each year when the annuities for all living former governors general are combined.
Add it all up, and Canadian taxpayers are left holding a bill for up to $1.4 million per year — not counting the startup grants to set up charities — with no ability to see exactly how all that money is being spent.
Although Treasury Board was the department that authorized the spending, it is the Privy Council Office that controls the terms and scope of the program and the Office of the Secretary for the Governor General at Rideau Hall through which the money actually flows.
While all expenses claimed by former governors general are filed through Rideau Hall, there is no requirement that those claims be made public unless they exceed $100,000.
That stands in stark contrast to the stringent requirements on members of Parliament who must disclose and list all expenses related to office and staffing costs, travel by themselves or their family on the taxpayer dime, and secondary residence expense claims.
For example, Canadians can scroll through the travel expenses claimed by MPs from all parties online and see how often their dependents or designated traveller — usually a spouse or partner — travelled using the expensing system set up for parliamentarians.
The same is not true for former governors general or their spouses.
While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vowed to change the expense program rules two years ago following a report by the National Post that revealed former governor general Adrienne Clarkson has claimed at least $1.1 million in expenses since leaving office, he has not done so.
Dominic LeBlanc, president of the Privy Council Office, has suggested while the government cannot revoke Payette’s annuity as laid out in law, her eligibility for the expense program could be reviewed by officials given the fact she did not complete her term.
“We think Canadians expect a high degree of transparency and rigour with respect to any of these benefits,” LeBlanc said during an interview on The West Block.
“So the Treasury Board will continue to look at what’s appropriate, but the retirement allowance is prescribed by law and that’s exactly what she’ll receive.”
Both Conservative leader Erin O’Toole and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh have said Payette should not be allowed to access the expense program given her conduct and her early resignation.
A spokesperson for Auditor General Karen Hogan has also confirmed the office has the authority to probe the expense program for former governors general.
However, such a probe is not on the current list of planned audits published by the office.