Senior Liberals get away with scandals that would never be tolerated in the private sector
By Howard Levitt
It’s not just civil servants with their rich benefit packages that get the pleasure of chuckling at their less entitled peers toiling for fewer perks in the private sector. The privilege enjoyed by their political masters turns that schadenfreude into satire.
Take Maryam Monsef, the Liberal MP and minister of democratic institutions. When Monsef got her job, the story she told the Peterborough-Kawartha voters who elected her was that she had come to Canada as a refugee fleeing the Taliban in Afghanistan, where she said her father had been killed and her uncle disappeared for political activism. That original, untrue story was so irresistible that President Obama praised Monsef when he addressed our Parliament, singling the MP out as “the girl who fled Afghanistan by donkey and camel and jet plane.”
As The Globe and Mail revealed last week, this wasn’t the truth. Monsef was born in Iran and spent most of her childhood there. When she immigrated to Canada in 1996, at age 11, it was after travelling from her birthplace of Mashhad, Iran via Pakistan and Jordan, to Montreal, where her family claimed refugee status. Monsef said she had no idea of this herself until the Globe brought it to her. She blamed her mother for giving her only a “neat and tidy” version of her “refugee story.”
Never mind that, despite trying to blame her mother, there still appears to be a lot of unresolved holes in that explanation. Rumours had apparently circulated for some time in Peterborough about Monsef’s birthplace. Other community leaders had heard them, but we’re to believe that Monsef herself was oblivious. She was also just as oblivious as a child in knowing even what country she lived in. But if voters buy this excuse, they are being more forgiving than many employers would be had they discovered they had hired someone who had fudged their résumé.
If an employee in the private sector misrepresents him or herself to get a job, justice can be swift: Instant dismissal for cause, something that has been entirely supported by the courts. And employees cannot take advantage of their own deception. It doesn’t matter if the employer doesn’t find out until years later. The cause for dismissal is eternal.
Luckily for Monsef, it so happens her political masters suddenly found themselves in no position to get righteous with her. Just as her backstory was being exposed as bogus, the most senior aides to the prime minister, Gerald Butts and Katie Telford, were caught making suspicious claims of their own — charging the government exorbitantly for their expenses in relocating to Ottawa. Were Butts and Telford equivalent private sector employees found doing this, they would surely have found themselves just as quickly dispatched.
They have evoked the Mike Duffy defence — that policies allowed them to collect more than $200,000 in expenses between them. These are policies they could have declined to take advantage of, and have the power to see changed entirely. But wasn’t transparency a key promise made by this Liberal government in getting elected? So, why did the government initially refuse to name Butts and Telford as the recipients when news of Liberal staffers making excessive moving claims was first reported? And why did it take finally being identified by name for Butts and Telford to admit they considered the claims inappropriate?
What still has yet to be satisfactorily explained is the more than $20,000 that the government handed each of them itemized as “personalized cash payout and incidentals.” So, now we’ve learned that the Canadian government handed two senior staffers tens of thousands of dollars in cash.
Go to a bank and try to withdraw $20,000 and you’ll have to complete considerable paperwork because of anti-money laundering legislation meant to suppress the underground economy.
So, why is the government handing over more than that — in cash — to Liberal staffers? Is it because it’s untraceable? Is it because suppliers the staffers used to relocate wanted to be paid in cash, to avoid paying income tax?
Of course, this isn’t the Costa Nostra. But the prime minister’s office is supposed to be enforcing tax collection in this country. The Liberals promised in their election platform a re-energized “crack down on tax evaders.”
Any supplier being paid in cash would be abetting the criminal activity of tax avoidance and supporting the underground economy. And yet the Privy Council Office, which provides support to the prime minister’s office, has said receipts are not always necessary to claim the cash payout. No sensible employer in the private sector would be passing bundles of cash to its employees for unreceipted services. If an executive at a private company were caught supporting activities recognized by regulators as conducive to tax avoidance or money laundering, that executive would be quickly expelled. But whether it’s Liberals playing loose with their backstories or playing loose with expense claims, their political boss, the prime minister, seems perfectly happy to shrug it all off.