The sketch: What price lunch?

The economics of governance
President of the Treasury Board Tony Clement responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, November 19, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle
Patrick Doyle/CP
Patrick Doyle/CP

From the far end of the room called out Liberal MP Gerry Byrne. With a question about lunch.

“Mr. Speaker, old habits being the way they are, today the PMO chief of staff and some of the highest paid employees of the ministers’ offices, some earning up to $170,000 a year, just tucked into a big taxpayer-funded free lunch, all in full violation of the rules,” the Newfoundlander ventured. “Yesterday, the President of the Treasury Board tried to blame the PCO bureaucrats, but we know that is just not true. These $67,000 in lunches are part of the PMO disclosure and the only person who could have approved them is the Prime Minister himself. Therefore, to the Prime Minister, what was on today’s menu, compliments of taxpayers?”

According to the Huffington Post, last week’s lunch was delivered by Indian Express. But the nature and origin of this week’s lunch would remain a mystery, at least for this day.

“Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to report that since the Liberals—who kind of mainlined their hospitality expenses—were in power, we have actually been able to cut hospitality expenses by the Government of Canada by 48%,” Treasury Board president Tony Clement happily responded to Mr. Byrne. “We are proud of that number. We are going to continue to respect the taxpayer and do the exact opposite of what they did when they were in power.”

The question we must ask ourselves now is simple and profound: How much should we, as a society, as individuals, as a collective, as a shared humanity, be willing to contribute to the weekly dietary requirements of those who administer our mutual governance?

According to the Huffington Post, our total contribution to this fund over a 39-month period between July 2010 and October 2013 was $67,789.48. That review of official lunching does at least provide for some interesting insight into the culinary preferences of government staff and we could perhaps parse the list to assess the wisdom and taste of those in charge of ordering (Cafe Deluxe does a nice chicken-and-vegetable sandwich and their chocolate chips cookies are good). But it is Mr. Clement’s assurance that no rules were contravened in the procuring of these lunches and that, anyway, it is not politicians who make decisions about how people are publicly fed, but officials with the Privy Council Office.

A similar amount of money was, just last week, sufficient to draw two statements from the Defence Minister, who was sufficiently confident on the basis of the basic evidence to declare that $72,000 appeared “grossly excessive” as it pertained to assisting a retired general with a move—with the Liberals protesting that everything was within the rules and according to policy. But, as the saying goes, the grossly excessive is in the eye of the beholder.

And so the timeless, necessary, but often tedious and beside-the-point work of rooting out “waste” and “excess” continues.

Indeed, now the Sun has tallied some $130,000 in sustenance and it was on this sum that the NDP’s Charlie Angus stood to complain.

“It cost $7,000 for one pizza party in the Prime Minister’s Office,” Mr. Angus reported. “Would they put the chicken bruschetta platter aside for one minute and tell us why they think it is okay for the Prime Minister’s staff to break rules that are in place to protect the taxpayers?”

Mr. Clement was confused. “Mr. Speaker, I find it curious that the opposition members will not even disclose any of their expenses,” he said of the New Democrats, “yet they stand in their places and criticize a government that has cut hospitality expenses by 48%.”

The gaul.

“That kind of hypocrisy is not tolerated by taxpayers,” Mr. Clement boldly declared. “We are on the side of the taxpayers.”

At least so far as the taxpayer’s side is within the mandate of the parliamentary budget officer.

Possibly we shant rest until every individual associated with the public administration of this country is made to cover each and every of their meals and snacks and the most a retiring general is allotted is a parting gift of a signed copy of Prime Minister’s hockey book.

Soon though Alexandre Boulerice, Charlie Angus’ tag-team partner, would up the ante rather dramatically. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation (it of the shirtless, beltless porcine mascot) had, Mr. Boulerice reported, awarded a top prize to the government’s $2.5-million advertising campaign for the Canada Job Grant, a program that still does not yet exist. “Are they beginning to understand that when they receive lemon awards from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation their transformation into Liberals is now complete?” he asked.

Pierre Poilievre jokingly shouted across the aisle that Mr. Boulerice had now gone too far.

“Mr. Speaker, the government has a responsibility to educate Canadians about the important programs and services that are offered,” Mr. Clement explained. “Advertising is essential for the government to inform Canadians about important issues.”

And if there are no free lunches, we are only ever figuring out what we are willing to eat.