Dermod Travis: For everything else, there's the government purchase card

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Call it the orange juice syndrome. Bev Oda, former federal minister responsible for the Canadian International Development Agency, knows it well. Her $16 glass of orange juice at the Savoy Hotel in London in 2011 was the tipping point that precipitated her downfall as a cabinet minister and an MP.

The political landscape is littered with Bev Odas. Politicians felled over lavish spending on entitlements, like former Alberta premier Alison Redford was. Rarely are they felled over such things as a $182-million child welfare management software system that doesn't work.

Which is why the government's purchase card payments released last week with the public accounts is so illuminating.

In the big scheme of things, the charges are an infinitesimal percentage of government spending—$41 million out of more than $43 billion in expenditures—but they offer a glimpse at fiscal approaches between ministries and whether a sense of entitlement may exist in some corners of government.

In his last two years as premier—from 2009-10 to 2010-11—Gordon Campbell's office charged 1,205 transactions to the purchase card totalling $400,384. Last year, Christy Clark's office charged 1,216 transactions totalling $395,220.

And it's not just the dollar difference between the two premiers that stands out, it's what many of those charges were for.

Under Campbell, flights on Harbour Air and Helijet came in at $23,591 over two years for the premier's office. Last year, Clark's office charged $142,071 with the two airlines. And that doesn't include additional flights with Alaska Air, Air Canada, Pacific Coastal Airlines, Porter Air, or WestJet.

All in, Clark's office charged $185,308 in airfares. That's an average of $3,560 per week. Now there may be some good reasons for some of those flights, but a daily commuter service isn't one of them.

Those float planes and whirlybirds sure are popular though. Last year, more than $2.4 million was charged for flights on Harbour Air and Helijet, that's about $47,000 per week. In defence of the flights, the finance ministry stated: “Employee travel to and from Victoria is often required in order to deliver the many programs and services British Columbians rely on.”

Plausible for some of the flights, not so much for others. It's tough to imagine that British Columbians were so urgently in need of a program or service from International Trade that it justified the ministry charging $89,000 for flights on Helijet.

There were some pretty big differences between the Campbell and Clark governments in other ministries as well. Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation charged $780,783 last year. That's nearly triple the $266,543 over Campbell's last two years.

And since politicians are masters at re-categorizing expenditures to suit their political agenda, comparing charges between fiscal years for ministries isn't always an exact science.

There's no purchase card summary for International Trade in 2010 or 2011, but last year the charges hit $1.33 million, including $260,730 with Air Canada, three charges at the Chosun Hotel in Seoul totalling $94,000 and two charges at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beijing totalling $52,000.

Over at the Justice department, they found 33 reasons to celebrate something or other at Earls on Hornby. Average tab? $362. Total bill? $11,958.

But it's not all bad. There were some spendthrifts. The Public Service Agency spent $796 with Groupon and various ministries made at least 419 transactions with dollar stores across B.C. totalling $24,179.

And while purchase card payments have dropped from $47.35 million in 2010-11 to $41 million last year, it's not much cause for celebration when payments to government suppliers rose from $7.17 billion to $8.07 billion in the same period.

A government does have to operate and that means spending money. And it's easy to second guess some expenditures. But the powers that be shouldn't be too shocked when the public is more curious over a $225 charge by the premier's office for a passport or $736 for valet parking in Los Angeles by International Trade than they may be over the cost of replacing the George Massey Tunnel.

That's politics. The public gets irate over the small amounts because they can relate to them. But the funny thing is that politicians who get the small things right, generally don't screw up the bigger ones.

Final note: someone really should suggest to the owners of “Out to Lunch Catering” that they may want to consider billing as “OTLC Catering” when they cater government functions.

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