There's rot in the ship of state
Sunday 1 February 2004, p. A14
Norm bought one of those fancy new 50-inch
Pioneer plasma TVs. It cost nearly $19,000. I've seen one. The picture
Norm also got a Yamaha amplifier, theatre speakers and
top-of-the-line DVD player and VCR to go with his new "toy." The total
price tag was $22,181.
He added eight super-comfy chairs and a two-seater sofa for another
$6,400. That's nearly 29 grand, and here's the funny part: You and I
paid for it.
Norm is Norman Steinberg, the director-general of audits and ethics
in the federal Public Works department. He had all this "stuff"
installed in his private Ottawa office because, he insists, they are
valuable training tools for his staff.
Steinberg told the Ottawa Sun that once a month a handful of staff
gather in his office to view webcasts. "We're at a point where it's
cheaper for us to do web-based training," he said. "We were told that
in terms of technology, in terms of what we're trying to achieve, it's
more cost-effective" than sending staff all over the world for
conferences on audit techniques and ethical standards.
He assured the Sun his staff got "the best cost available at the
time" when buying the electronics and furniture.
But why a 50-inch plasma TV for $19,000 rather than a 29-inch,
old-fashioned TV for $750? And if it's for staff training, why is the
TV on the wall of Steinberg's office and not in some conference room?
Oh, Steinberg confessed to the Sun, he occasionally turns on the TV
to watch Question Period in the Commons.
Well, that makes it all right then.
Since 1999, Steinberg has also billed taxpayers for $60,000 worth
of desktop and laptop computers and software, and another $86,000 to
attend conferences, including ones in China and Australia. The laptop
he himself uses is a $3,200 Sony VAIO Picture Book, an upper level rig
with enough memory and processor speed to edit digital photographs and
movies and play the most advanced computer games -- tasks I'm sure
help Steinberg pass the time while his staff are webcast training in
his office, not to mention on all those long, overseas flights.
Because he is both an auditor and an ethics overseer, Steinberg
claims, "I have to be more careful than many other public servants. I
don't abuse the system."
Gee, I'd like to see the expense accounts of those he thinks are
abusing the system.
The real kicker is Steinberg was given an award last year by the
Liberal government for "strong ethical performance." It's a sign of
how deep and wide the rot in Ottawa is when this kind of operator is
praised for his ethics.
Steinberg is not yet in the territory of former privacy
commissioner George Radwanski in his misuse of public funds, but from
where Steinberg is, he can see Radwanski at the crest of the hill.
Self-indulgence and misuse of the public trust is endemic in the
In early January, a Public Service Commission (PSC) report revealed
that half of all federal civil servants had acquired their jobs other
than through true public competitions -- usually through knowing
someone in the department or through rigged application processes.
Crucial documents regarding successful job-seekers' qualifications
were permanently missing from scores of files. And in hundreds of
cases where seemingly open competitions were held, job qualifications
were advertised in such a way that only a single, predetermined
candidate met them, most often an acquaintance or relative of the
But how could the civil service be expected to be cleaner, more
ethical, more frugal than the government it served? The Chretien
government was rife with, um, ethical challenges, from the top man
The trouble is, from what we learned this week, new Prime Minister
Paul Martin is unlikely to be in a position to do much to cut out the
Last year, the federal government insisted it had done only
$137,000 in business with Martin's Canada Steamship Lines in the
previous 10 years. This week, of course, it was revealed that that
$137,000 had actually been $161 million, including $46 million during
Martin's tenure as finance minister.
Assuming a steady $5.1 million in contracts per year for his nine
years in office, that's nearly two per cent of CSL Group's annual
revenues, enough that you won't miss it if you were doing an honest
audit the first time around.
Last year we learned, too, that CSL had received loans of more than
half a billion dollars from foreign banks with Canadian subsidiaries
that Martin was responsible for regulating while finance minister. And
we learned that his blind trust -- more than an arm's-length trust
into which cabinet ministers are to put their assets while in office
-- wasn't blind at all. Once or twice a year while finance minister,
Martin discussed at length corporate goings-on with CSL executives.
And the Ottawa consulting and image-making firm, Earnscliffe, that
was instrumental in electing Martin to lead the Liberals, routinely,
while he was in finance, both represented the department in
communications contracts and lobbied the department on behalf of
Something is rotten in Ottawa, but it is doubtful whether Martin is
the man to eradicate the blight.
Columnist, Edmonton Journal
Editorial Board Member, National Post
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