Editorial Comment

No Free Lunches


One of the real truisms that have withstood the test of time is this old chestnut: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” The fact is, the lunch may be free for the one that eats it, someone, somewhere, still has to pay for it. Far too often, it’s you and me.
The latest example of this is the revelations in the major media outlets concerning the expense reports of Alberta Senator-in-Waiting, Doug Black. According to a Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) report, Mr. Black has racked up $28,000 in expenses during his 18 months on the job as board chairman of the University of Calgary.  His predecessor, Jack Perraton, in comparison, put in for an entirely reasonable $434.00 in the whole three and a half years he helmed the board.
What did Mr. Black get for his $28,000, you might well ask. He got to live the high life, baby. There were first-class plane tickets to destinations all over North America. There were luxurious stays at places like The Four Seasons and The Ritz, as well as many, many free lunches.
What was perplexing to the watchdog group is that the university’s rules for expenses does not allow for first class airfare, limos and top of the line hotel rooms. The university has policies which spell out more frugal options which are to be used, yet these expenses were still signed off by the board.  Of course, now that these dodgy expenditures have received the glare of the media spotlight, restitution was made quickly. Even this restitution stinks to most clear-thinking voters, however. If you or I were caught shoplifting, you can bet we wouldn’t be able to simply give back what we stole and go on like nothing happened. Yet this is exactly what it appears these fat cats feel they can do.
Larding up your expense account, while living high on the hog at taxpayer’s expense, is no different than any other form of stealing. The fact that the person was willing to do it when they thought they were being unobserved speaks loudly to their character.
Mr. Black is our Senator-in-Waiting? Is this how he prepares for life in the red chamber? As often as I suspect senators and parliamentarians buy their own lunch, perhaps this may be appropriate. Perhaps one can’t just leap right into the Bev Oda mindset of the privileged class. Mr. Black was simply training for his life to come.
You’d think, after the public shaming of Allaudin Merali, recently dispatched by Alberta Health Services, for, among other outrageous claims, expensing his Mercedes Benz repairs, these guys in the public eye would be a bit more circumspect. Unfortunately, in the corridors of power, people such as Merali, Oda and Black walk along, free lunches are the norm. It’s expected. They’re entitled to them, the Bev Oda’s of the world believe. After all, that’s how it works, isn’t it? People in positions of influence are much too important to be responsible for their own lunches.  
More and more, people are starting to question those free lunches, however. The man on the street knows if he doesn’t buy his own lunch, he’s going to go hungry until supper. Buying lunches out, even at fast food joints is pricey if you do it daily. In the back of his mind, however, he knows there are those that can eat out every day, if that is their wish, and at places where the menu isn’t read over the head of the teenaged cashier at the till. It seems the richer you are, the less likely it is you have to pay for your own lunch.
One of the most damaging aspects about the free lunch issue is that when news of the largess of the entitled class reaches our middle-income ears, we suspect everyone with an expense account of excessive larding. For all the Jack Perratons out there, the feeling is there are far more Doug Blacks. As a result, our distrust of all public officials is further reduced. It erodes our faith in our government and its bureaucracy. 
There is another way, of course. Since expense accounts are always suspect and temptation to abuse them always present, perhaps we should look at doing away with them all together. Let’s pay people what they are worth and they will be able to afford to buy their own lunches.
Switching to such a program will do a number of things. First of all and perhaps most importantly, it may help regain some lost ground in our faith in our elected and public officials. If an International Development minister wants to pay $16.00 for a glass of OJ, no problem. It’s entirely on their own hook. 
Secondly, this initiative would rein in those people who have come to believe so much in their own importance, that they deserve to fly first class; that they must be provided limos, as opposed to taxicabs and that only the absolute best hotels could possibly suffice.  It is that mindset that creates policies good for organizations but not good for the people paying for them. It reinforces an “us versus them” mentality that permeates their every decision.
Of course there are instances where people are obliged to incur expenses on behalf of an organization they shouldn’t pay for. Those organizations, however, should have itinerary planners that line up all the travel and accommodation bookings to maximize savings and provide transparency for all associated logistics.
On a positive note, the Alberta government has announced they are establishing a website to display all governmental expense account transactions for all taxpayers to see. This, at least, is a step in the right direction. At least we’ll be able to see who is eating all those free lunches.

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