UPDATED: $8.4 million a year to run the Giornopolis? A bargain at twice the price! - Macleans.ca

UPDATED: $8.4 million a year to run the Giornopolis? A bargain at twice the price!

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As noted by one of our commenters in the thread below, another small, but important difference between the House and Senate versions of Question Period is that, when the minister charged with answering a question — which, in the Senate, is nearly always Marjory LeBreton —  finds herself without a carefully prepared talking point to deliver in response,  she can always offer to take the question under notice, and provide a written answer at a future date.

Which, as it happens, is precisely how we ended up with a — well, not exactly full, but partial —  budget breakdown for the Prime Minister’s Office — the not-all-that-detailed details of which turned up in the Senate transcript this week,  less than a month after Senator Lorna Milne asked the following question:

Hon. Lorna Milne: Honourable senators, in February, the Standing Senate Committee on National Finance reported that conventional practice over the years was to list and clearly identify the expenditures of the Prime Minister’s Office as part of the expenditures of the Privy Council Office in the estimates documents. The committee learned, however, there would be nothing under the heading of PMO in the supplementary estimates 2008-09, Supplementary Estimates (B), or in the most recent Main Estimates document.

Can the Leader of the Government in the Senate undertake to provide honourable senators with the total amount estimated to be spent by the Prime Minister’s Office for 2009-10? How much dough is at the PMO?

Senator Comeau: Get a new assistant!

Hon. Marjory LeBreton (Leader of the Government and Minister of State (Seniors)): Honourable senators, Senator Milne fancies herself a poet now; it is a massive failure.

First, the honourable senator started her question about something occurring in the National Finance Committee. Honourable senators, I know that all ministers in the government post their expenses in accordance with the new provisions brought in. I have no idea what the honourable senator is talking about, so I will take the question as notice.

This week, the senator finally got her answer — well, an answer, anyway. According to the response, which was tabled last Tuesday, the 2009-10 budget for PMO is currently estimated at $8.4 million, of which the bulk — $7.1 million — goes to salaries and wages, and just over $1 million allotted for “travel, professional services and the cost related to the operation of the residences”, although it points out that  “given the current reorganization of the PMO, these estimates have not yet been finalized.”  And no, Senator Milne wasn’t misremembering — it seems that the main estimates used to provide a more thorough explanation of where the money went:

Up to fiscal year 2005-06, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) was identified as a separate program activity under the Privy Council Office’s (PCO) PAA. Since then, PCO has revised its PAA to reflect its reorganization to focus on its core functions. Under the new PAA, PMO’s budget and expenditures are now part of the program activity “provide professional, non-partisan policy advice and support to the Prime Minister and portfolio ministers”.

ITQ will cheerfully admit that her first response was, “Wow, that’s not much at all” — in fact, it seemed so very, very modest, especially the trifling $1.1 million for non-salary expenses, that we found ourselves wondering how on earth they could manage on such a tiny budget.

How could the Prime Minister and his retinue possibly afford to continue to travel the world, taking a leadership role on Afghanistan here, expounding on the relative buoyancy of the Canadian economy there, on such limited funds? And what about hiring high-powered American media fixers like Ari Fleischer and Mike McCurry, who, with fees “in the ballpark” of $24,000 per job, would already have reduced the annual budget by nearly five percent?

A quick scan of the most recent expense filings by PMO officials may provide some clarification, however — the vast majority of trips are via “government aircraft” — Challenger, we assume — which means that staffers — and prime ministers — can write off the air fare completely;  the actual cost of operating the plane would be covered by National Defence, and would show up in their budget, although likely not broken down per flight. Which leaves a lot more mad money to spend on outside consultants than would be the case if every airmile had to be accounted for under the PMO budget — especially when PCO picks up the tab for three months of Ipsos-Reid’s “communications research services”.

Really, the only thing left to figure out is whether the $8.4 million tab is higher, lower or pretty much the same as the PMO budget under previous governments, and ITQ is doing her best to track down those numbers. (It’s harder than it sounds; despite the senator’s insistence that the full breakdown used to be available in the main estimates, we’ve not been able to find the line items.) We’ll keep you posted — but in the meantime, ITQ readers, do you feel as though you’re getting good value for money? After all, it is your PMO too. Sort of. In theory. Just don’t get any crazy ideas about dropping by for a visit.

Oh, and one final note: We don’t want to unnecessarily alarm anyone, but it seems that the current occupant of 24 Sussex Drive is in grave danger of being declared a proactive disclosure delinquent: Stephen Harper hasn’t submitted a travel and hospitality expense report since December 2008, despite the fact that we’re approaching the end of the second quarter. Remember, accountability starts at the top, prime minister.

(On the other hand, we have no trouble believing that Guy Giorno has yet to file a single expense claim. Really, has there been a definitive spotting of him outside the confines of Langevin Block since he showed up last year?)

UPDATED IN CASE YOU’RE TOO BUSY AND IMPORTANT TO BROWSE THE COMMENTS:

In response to questions from the ITQ afterhours comment crew, I posted the following additional tidbits:

Because I clearly have no life whatsoever, I checked the travel expense reports filed so far this year for advance — which are only available for January, for the most part, although there are two staffers who filed claims for advance travel in early February; so far, there’s nothing from the G20/NATO trip.

Most of the filings note that government aircraft “was used for part of the trip”, which would reduce the final cost considerably, but the total so far for the five staffers involved is $12,229.13, which includes travel, accommodation and incidentals. That means that if January can be considered a typical month, as far as advance travel, the yearly bill for advance would be somewhere in the neighbourhood of $150,000, as long as staff is able to hitch a ride back on the Challenger most of the time.

There’s also a separate listing for “other expenses during trips”, which racked up $6,584.28 in 2008, almost all of which was for refreshments and snacks for PMO staff. My very favourite claim may be this one: $4.58 at a Mac’s in Calgary. For four people. The full list is available here.