Our country is divided on issues like gun control, capital punishment and whether the mayor of Toronto ought to cram a sock or a cork in his noise hole. (Full disclosure: I’m on Team Both.) But perhaps now we have found some common ground.
Hands up: is there anyone out there—anyone at all—who does not believe it was outrageous, hubristic and also pretty dumb for cabinet minister Bev Oda to spend $16 for a bottle of orange juice from a mini-bar at the five-star hotel she moved to because she didn’t care for her original five-star hotel? Anyone?
Yes, over there, I see you with your arm raised high, ma’am. Oh, you were just flagging down the chauffeur of your $1,000-a-day limousine. Carry on, Ms. Oda.
As for the rest of you, put yourselves in Bev Oda’s shoes. (FYI, as taxpayers we don’t pay for Oda’s footwear so they’re probably just functional loafers and not some super-luxury pumps with solid-gold accents and laser cannons.)
You are Canada’s international development minister, concerning yourself with the plight of the world’s poorest. You arrive in London for a conference on immunization. You are whisked to your room at the five-star Grange St. Paul’s Hotel, which also happens to be the site of the conference—that conference about keeping very poor people from becoming very sick, remember?
You scope things out room-wise. Monogrammed robes? Check. Anti-mist bathroom mirror? You bet. An air of elegant opulence offset by just the right amount of opulent elegance? But of course. Your verdict?
Take me to a six-star hotel!
But minister, hotel ratings go no higher than five.
Then take me to a five-star hotel that’s five-starrier! And make sure it’s far enough away that I can spend a couple grand on a limo to get back and forth, even though it’s only a mile and I could easily take a cab for a few bucks. Also, I’m thirsty: find me something refreshing in the $15 to $20 range.
The conference took place last summer but details of Oda’s expenses were made public only this week by Canadian Press. Confronted with the numbers, a spokesman said: “When Minister Oda travels we consider the most appropriate, cost-effective accommodations. On the trip in question, our office followed this procedure.”
Note the careful language: they consider the most cost-effective accommodations. Then the minister tut-tuts at the thread count of the sheets, rolls her eyes at the amenities—only one bidet??—and flees to a more refined establishment that costs twice as much but offers a 24-hour chocolate fountain and hot and cold running obsequiousness.
What’s amazing isn’t that Oda submitted these expenses (she has a history)—it’s that they were accepted. All of them: the cancellation fee at the Grange, the $665-a-night room at the Savoy, even the OJ. Only after her splurge became news did the minister cough up reimbursement. It’s like I’ve always said about Bev Oda: you can count on her to treat taxpayers’ money with respect once she is caught, revealed, pressured, cajoled and publicly shamed.
It’s said that power corrupts, and in some it does. But more often power erodes. People remain good, for the most part, but their ethics and principles slowly begin to decay.
You’re a cabinet minister. You work hard. After a while, you convince yourself: seven hundred bucks a night for a hotel room isn’t that much. You convince yourself: I deserve a limo. You convince yourself: $16 isn’t really a ridiculous amount to pay for—actually, no sane person could convince herself of that. You’re one of a kind, Bev.
Remember Stephen Harper circa 2004? What struck me about his harangues against Liberal excess was how genuine they sounded, how deeply personal they seemed. I witnessed a couple of his rants in person and he was literally shaking as he spoke. Many Canadians believed that under his leadership, Ottawa would be different.
Bev Oda is the latest case study in a government that is not corrupt but is complicit in waste and empowering of avarice. Does Oda deserve to be turfed for taking advantage of this culture? Probably not. But I remember a Stephen Harper who would have taken one look at her expenses and fired her anyway, his hands trembling with rage.
Follow Scott Feschuk on Twitter @scottfeschuk