Saturday, January 7, 2012

Mr Corbett flies high

There is a curious phenomenon in political life that is often called "tone deafness". It's when a politician cannot see that his words or actions are out of synch with the prevailing public sentiment. Moreover, politicians like to think that a tempest-in-a-teapot will just blow over and the story will be forgotten in the next news cycle. Unfortunately, sometimes a political mistake just sticks and sticks and sticks, and comes to define the politician. A lot of stuff stuck to John Buchanan, but the best remembered is probably the toilet-seat scandal, wherein the government bought a few specialty toilet seats from a friend of the Premier; the seats had a special mechanism that would automatically unfurl a fresh paper liner over the seat. They were never used, they were eventually sold at public auction, and while the Province did not suffer a great loss over the matter the press surely enjoyed the story.

Deputy Premier Frank Corbett is exhibiting his own brand of tone deafness these days. In the days after the election of the new NDP government he was discovered to be charging dinners to his expense account, dinners with several guests whom he refused to identify. As I recall he said that they were giving him advice on political matters. Speculation in the press suggested that they were his union buddies.

Wikipedia has the following entry:

On November 10, 2009, it was discovered that Corbett had rung up the highest meal bills on file for the new NDP government. A check of ministers’ records showed that Corbett expensed $441.48 for six people at the Keg restaurant in downtown Halifax on June 19, the night he and his 11 cabinet colleagues were sworn in. July included a dinner meeting for three at CUT Steakhouse in Halifax for $332.90. Two nights later, there was a $250.28 meal for three at Ryan Duffy’s.


These revelations came after a statement released in September 2009, in which Corbett stated that because of the province's projected $590-million deficit, MLAs and staff had to be prepared to "lead by example." When news of Corbett's meal expenses was made public, he was quoted as saying "I screwed up and it won't happen again".


So, let's deconstruct one of these dinners. Take $441.48 for 6 people at the Keg and subtract the HST ($57.58) and then subtract a 15% tip ($50.00) and you have food and liquor costs of $333.90 for 6 people, or $55.65 per person. A very nice steak and a beer at the Swiss Chalet would cost about $25, so there must have been some good food and wine at that table to reach $334. And Mr Corbett would not reveal who his guests were, perhaps because it would have been hard to demonstrate that the hospitality was in the best interests of the taxpayers, who were footing the bill, after all. Shortly after the story broke Mr Corbett repaid the claims for these expensed meals.

And now it turns out that Mr Corbett has been flying on Air Canada to reach his Cape Breton home for the weekend. And he has been charging for taxis to get him to the airport, for a total of $18,000 in travel costs in the first seven months of 2011.

He defended the expense on the grounds that after working a ten-hour day it is too much to drive five more hours to get home. Premier Dexter has backed him up on this.

The underlying assumption is that Mr Corbett's workload is very great, and that he is the only one who can do  the work. According to his official biography Mr Corbett was a television cameraman before he entered politics, and he was active in the union. His offical NDP biography says this: An active trade unionist, Frank is the former president of CEP (Communications, Energy, and Paperworkers Union), Local 914 M (ATV); past Regional Vice President of NABET (National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians); former Staff Rep for NABET; and a past CLC (Canadian Labour Congress) representative.

I am having a hard time seeing that Mr Corbett's skills and experience are so valuable to the administration of the Province that the taxpayers' should pay $18,000 in seven months to fly him home so he can continue to do his work at the airport and on the plane. Maybe he should work shorter days, and drive home like all the other MLA's.

I sometimes wonder how some politicians reach the mindspace that lets them charge off expenses that no reasonable taxpayer would ever approve. In the private sector we see lots of executive compensation that includes club memberships and fees, allowances for clothing and hospitality, foreign travel and accommodation at first class levels and more, but they are presumably authorised by the company directors, who represent shareholders. They can spend their money as they please, and it rarely makes the front page of the newspapers. $18,000 in air fares over 7 months just to get the man home for the weekends at taxpayers expense is guaranteed to make the front page.

There are three ways to get a big expense account. You can start a business, grow it big, keep it private and spend the money as you please. Or, you can start at the bottom and work your way up the ladder in a large and successful private company (a bank, for instance), and then you might have a generous allowance. But if you don't have the skills or drive to do either of those, and your real skills are in operating a camera in a small television market and being a staunch union man, then the best way to get a big expense account is to get elected. The trouble comes when an elected man seems to think he has earned his perks just like the private-sector guys.

Mind you, Mr Corbett's costs are small potatoes compared to some other public sector folks. David Dingwall ("I am entitled to my entitlements") is reported to have done a good job at the Canadian Mint, but he spent lots of the money he was making. And Ted Weatherill, a federal appointee, spent so lavishly on food and travel that the Canadian Taxpayers Association has named an annual award for expenses-abuse after him.

I just wish that Mr Corbett could be remembered for something other than his sense of entitlement.


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Corbett spent $18K on travel
CBC News
Posted: Jul 13, 2011 9:30 PM AT

CBC News

Nova Scotia deputy premier Frank Corbett has billed taxpayers more than $18,000 for air flights and taxis for trips to and from his riding of Cape Breton Centre over the past seven months.

Every MLA is reimbursed for their travel between Halifax and their constituency, and all of them drive their own cars — except Corbett, who is NDP MLA for Cape Breton Centre.

He prefers to fly from Halifax to his home in New Waterford.

Since last December, Corbett has billed taxpayers $15,100 for Air Canada flight passes, according to MLA expense report online for June 2011.

Corbett billed another $250 for flight cancellation charges.

He also expensed another $2,874.78 to a company called Crystal Cab and Limo to get to the airport

Corbett said Wednesday that he is simply too busy to drive between Halifax and his home in New Waterford.

Besides being the deputy premier, he is also deputy president of the executive council, chairman of the treasury board, minister of the Public Service Commission, and minister of Communications Nova Scotia.

"I think the issues here are that I can get work done in the airport and get it done on the airplane," he said.

"I'm edging on 60 [years old]. Five hours in a car ain't fun to roll out and try to be bright and fresh to do a meeting."

Corbett said his vehicle is six years old and is in for repairs this week after he drove it to Halifax last week in order to save some money.

When he was in Opposition, Corbett said he always drove his own car back and forth. But, he said, with the time pressures he is now under, he plans to continue flying between Halifax and his constituency.

Corbett also said that he believes Air Canada is ripping off Nova Scotians with the high fares charged to fly between Halifax and Sydney.

Since the MLA expense scandal in 2010, the province posts all expenses claimed by MLAs online.

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