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Jan 08 2013

Picking your battles (and picking them stupidly)

If you follow Canadian politics news, you may have noticed that a copy of a third-party forensic audit of Attawapiskat First Nation was leaked to the press yesterday. The news wasn’t exactly good* – a large majority of expenses had no supporting documentation, which is certainly a suspicious state of affairs. The fact that the band has been under co-management and that the number of un-documented expenses dropped after 2010 (when Theresa Spence took over as chief) has not stopped the crowing of the critics of Chief Spence’s attempts to elicit federal assistance from a government that seems more interested in sending accountants than resources. They see this as further evidence of their central thesis: that the problems experienced by First Nations are the result of their own incompetence as opposed to anything that the Government of Canada has to step in and address (because fuck the Auditor General, right?)

To their credit, the only response from the Harper team so far has been to say that they agree with the findings of the audit (they’ve had a copy of it for months now), but their supporters have been bleating their triumph to the skies. Which makes me wonder: is fiscal responsibility really the moral high ground you want to stand on? The whole argument right now is whether or not the incompetence and shady practices of Chief Spence and her clique have resulted in a situation where her people are suffering, and she is to blame by virtue of her lack of fiscal responsibility.

Again I ask you, Harper supporters: is this really the hill you want to die on?

The federal government has refused to give Parliament’s budgetary watchdog copies of the bids that ultimately won nearly $33 billion worth of work for shipyards in Halifax and Vancouver under the government’s national shipbuilding strategy. Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page had requested the bids submitted by Vancouver’s Seaspan Marine and Halifax’s Irving Shipbuilding as part of a study into one of the massive National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy’s key projects.

Remember Kevin Page? The guy who the Harper Government hired to be a government watchdog? Well it turns out he’s perhaps the only competent appointment Stephen Harper has made thus far, because all of a sudden the Government of Canada is decidedly close-lipped about their finances. It’s to the point that Mr. Page has to actually sue to get documentation. The very kind of documentation that makes Theresa Spence a cause for national tongue-clucking.

 

But that’s not all…

 

Newly released documents suggest the Conservative government fattened the pay of some political staffers while the country was tackling an economic crisis in 2009. In one case, a senior aide’s salary was raised to $190,000 — $35,000 more than the maximum rate.

News of those bonuses comes two days after The Canadian Press revealed that, in the future, more staffers will become eligible for an increase in salary and separation benefits thanks to guidelines enacted this month. The Treasury Board Secretariat, which oversees federal human-resources management, says in its guidelines for political staff that paying more than the maximum in a salary range should be a rare occurrence.

Yes, it seems as though Harper has been dipping into the public coffers to reward his own band of cronies. While public service jobs are being cut across the country, the Prime Minister has found some extra cash to reward political staffers. This raise over the maximum allowable salary is, according to the article, subject to approval by the Prime Minister’s Office, meaning that Stephen himself or someone working very closely with him had to approve this request in particular.

And no, we haven’t yet hit bottom:

The Conservative government overruled federal bureaucrats and gave $1-million to a social hall project submitted by an Ottawa rabbi with close ties to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird. After speaking to Mr. Baird, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley personally approved the project even though her officials determined it did not meet the criteria for a federal program aimed at making facilities wheelchair accessible.

(snip)

The money for the project came from the Enabling Accessibility Fund, a short-term program that offered federal grants for projects that “improve accessibility and enable Canadians, regardless of physical ability, to participate in and contribute to their communities and the economy.”

Ms. Finley’s department received 355 applications by the deadline of Jan. 13, 2011. Public servants graded submissions against the program’s criteria and whittled the list down to 25 that received at least 82 out of a possible 100 points. Rabbi Mendelsohn submitted a proposal on behalf of his Ottawa-based national organization to expand the Chabad in Markham. The project promises a new fully accessible social hall, kitchen, classrooms and gym, and programs for the disabled.

A briefing note to Ms. Finley from Human Resources officials said the internal federal assessment found “a number of weaknesses” with the proposal and gave it 53 out of 100.

John Baird (remember him?) has decided that an open, transparent, merit-based process of awarding grants can go fuck itself because he’s John Baird and there’s a rabbi with not enough cash out there. Now I’m sure Minister Baird thinks that religion should be free, but I’m surprised to learn that it is the policy of his government that it should be subsidized.

Still got enough room in your vomit bag for more? Because there’s definitely more:

The Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline will deliver an inflationary oil price “shock” to Canadians of US$2 to $3 per barrel “every year for 30 years,” a B.C. economist predicts. Robyn Allan, former president of the Insurance Corp. of B.C. and senior economist for B.C. Central Credit Union, cites studies by Alberta Energy and the University of Calgary that predict Enbridge will trigger even higher domestic oil prices — ranging between $8 to $10 per barrel respectively. She has taught money, public finance and economics at the university level.

Higher oil prices without any change in real economic activity — the Enbridge case — create inflation, she continues. Inflation from higher oil prices will be especially painful for Canadians since Canada must import almost half of its crude oil from offshore. It still has no pipeline to ship western crude to eastern markets. As oil prices rise, income is transferred from consumers to producers, causing greater unemployment, higher interest rates and a decline in business investment.

Northern Gateway, Allan says, “will serve to permanently reduce GDP, increase unemployment, cause labour income to fall and decrease government revenues.”

Ah yes, the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline – the project for which Mr. Harper has been willing to move hell and high, bitumen contaminated water to get built. The project for which immigration rules have been shredded, Treaty obligations have been railroaded, environmental regulations have been fast-tracked to the point where they are absurdly ineffective. All this for a project that will, according at least to this analysis, hurt the economy. To say nothing of what happens when Enbridge lives up to its sterling reputation and the pipeline bursts, contaminating the environment and making the area around the pipeline (conveniently built mostly on Native-controlled lands) unliveable.

And I didn’t even mention the fighter jets.

So when we look at the list above, what do we see? Undocumented expenses, political favouritism with tax dollars, unjustified political croneyism, lack of oversight, and profligate waste. All things that Mr. Harper’s supporters claim are shockingly unacceptable when it comes in the form of a $90-million (over 6 years) National budget for a place that most of them probably can’t spell without help. Hell, the Harper government came to power over the issue of $4 million in taxpayer money that had some irregularities in its dispensation. And yet here we stand with a government that has the eye-popping arrogance to send in auditors to a humanitarian crisis, all the while ignoring the millions (and potentially billions) of dollars it’s misappropriating without a moment’s pause for explanation or apology.

But yes, Conservative supporters, let’s have a discussion about who is wasting taxpayer dollars, shall we? Apparently this is where you think your ideological strengths lie, and I’m only too happy to oblige you.

An animated .gif of President Obama saying

Please proceed, Harperites

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*It should probably go without saying that I don’t buy the popular conclusions from the audit. It’s entirely possible that Theresa Spence misappropriated some money, but the idea that she would defraud her community and then launch herself into the national spotlight seems a bit far-fetched. I understand from the sources I follow that corruption and croneyism within the National Chiefs system is a serious issue, but I think the answer to that question is found in the hands of the members of the Nations themselves, and not the paternal gaze of the benevolent Canadian Government.

P.S. – There seems to be a lot of confusion about the point I am making in this post. I am not saying “well because Harper’s government is bad, therefore we should wave away what may have happened in Attawapiskat. My point is that there is a profound level of hypocrisy among those who claim to care about fiscal responsibility in the case of Attawapiskat and yet are not making calls for the resignation of the Prime Minister and his team over their even more egregious examples of irresponsibility. In the absence of such calls, I have to question both the motivation and basic self-awareness of those who deplore Chief Spence but support Prime Minister Harper’s economic record.

12 comments

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  1. 1
    crowepps

    There is a big difference between ‘supporting documentation wasn’t in the file when the accountant checked’ and/or ‘the accountant doesn’t know where the money was spent’ and ‘money was spent inappropriately’. In order to figure out whether the community was defrauded, it is first necessary to figure out where the money actually *was* spent.

  2. 2
    Slyder

    Attacking the accuser of being guilty of something doesn’t make the person accused any less guilty ( Ad hominem, as a skeptic, you should know about these). That’s faulty logic. A debate about corruption or financial decision making in the Conservative Government is a completely separate issue from that of Chief’s Spence’s ability to spend public funds.

    The fact of the matter is, looking at the books of Chief Spence’s community, the lack or record keeping indicates two things. She is incompetent, or corrupt. I’m sure you’d agree that neither of these qualities are good for a public servant spending public funds.

  3. 3
    thetristantomes

    If $4 million lead to the Liberal gov’t leaving power, I can only hope all these scandals lead to the destruction of CRAP. Unfortunately, I fear that scandals may become so common that people just get used to it and don’t care anymore.

  4. 4
    Crommunist

    Fun story: I am pointing out the hypocrisy of those who support Harper and salivate over the supposed corruption of Theresa Spence. They don’t actually care about fiscal responsibility, or they’d apply the same level of rancor and triumphalist wanking to their own party.

    Another fun story: the number of missing documents decreases after Theresa Spence’s term begins, so…

  5. 5
    Slyder

    It’s your blog, and I love the discussion but I would suggest applying an approach of critical thinking and non-partisanship rather then attacking the accuser. You know, examining each thing based on it’s merit rather then if it came from a conservative politician or liberal politician. For example, I’m not necessarily a conservative supporter, however, I’m “salivating” over this report.

    You can also stop the hypocrisy…. with your Vote, should enough people in your country agree with your viewpoint, however, it’s whoever you vote for that has to deal with issues of mismanagement such as this.

    Even if there’s less missing paper’s, that makes her less incompetent then her predecessor? I’d rather not have someone who’s “trying their best” manage hundreds of millions of federal, provincial and private sector funds.

  6. 6
    Crommunist

    Except, as I explained both in my previous comment and the body of the post, I am not “attacking the accuser”. I am pointing out the hypocritical stance of those who a) support the government, and b) think that the finances of Attawapiskat is a national scandal. The findings of the audit are not under debate here – I don’t know enough about forensic accounting to make either heads or tails of the findings (except that they don’t find evidence of malfiesance, just incompetence).

    Even if there’s less missing paper’s, that makes her less incompetent then her predecessor?

    That’s actually exactly what it means.

    I’d rather not have someone who’s “trying their best” manage hundreds of millions of federal, provincial and private sector funds.

    And I’d rather weigh 210 lbs and have a 10″ cock. My point is that the people who are proposing to be the “fiscally responsible” ones are, in fact, not. And until they at least admit that, I recognize their soapbox hand-wringing and stern lectures for what they are: a political sop to the racist beliefs of their base.

  7. 7
    Slyder

    Hahaha well speaking as a person with a 10″ cock it’s not as great as it seems.

    But I’ll have to end the comments here. Generalization of conservative voting base as racist it a little to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hasty_generalization for me. But the conversation and points are at least an interesting read.

    Keep on writing :)

  8. 8
    Argle Bargle

    I don’t know enough about forensic accounting to make either heads or tails of the findings (except that they don’t find evidence of malfiesance, just incompetence).

    Forensic accountancy is essentially accounting used in legal disputes or court cases. Auditing is ascertaining the validity and reliability of financial data. While most forensic accountants are auditors, most auditors are not forensic accountants. I’ve been an auditing accountant for years, I’ve never done forensic accounting.

    </accounting pedant>

    I can’t find a copy of the audit on the internet. From some of the news stories I’ve read, it appears the record-keeping was sloppy, there was a high turnover of bookkeeping personnel in the band’s office, and they changed accounting systems during the period the audit looked at. It also appears that Chief Spence tightened up accounting procedures after she took office. My professional opinion is that incompetence is more likely than maleficence. But I’d like to look at the audit before I made a more definite statement.

  9. 9
    dgrasett

    Last night’s CBC – said quite clearly that there was no suggestion of malfeasance. Just that first nations hadn’t documented what they had spent. (After that, they went on to talk about Anawapiscat – which is a whole ‘nother problem)

  10. 10
    davebot

    Thanks for this post. I was reading the conservative responses to the audit and was thinking to myself “gee, I wish Crommunist would write about this since he’s been fairly close with the Idle No More movement”.

    Apparently I have powers.

  11. 11
    Crommunist

    I definitely wouldn’t describe myself as “close with” anything, I’ve just been trying to pay attention as much as possible.

  12. 12
    davebot

    My bad. “Paying attention” is closer to what I meant than what I actually wrote. Apparently my powers don’t include good phrasing.

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