Harper approves $22,000 tab for visiting bureaucrats

Prime Minister Stephen Harper personally approved a $21,865 hospitality tab for visiting European bureaucrats last fall even as the government was preaching fiscal restraint.

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Stephen Harper personally approved a $21,865 hospitality tab for visiting European bureaucrats last fall even as the government was preaching fiscal restraint.

Newly disclosed documents show the three-day meeting featured a welcome reception at the National Gallery of Canada, two lunches, and a formal dinner at Rideau Hall — all of them featuring free wine.

The final tab for the Oct. 18-20 event was almost $112,000, including travel, hotels, musical entertainment and $2,250 in gifts for delegates.

Visitors included a six-person delegation from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development secretariat in Paris, who joined Harper and Canadian public servants to discuss how to manage major government cuts in spending.

The so-called OECD Centres of Government meeting has rotated among various member countries since 1993, and for the first time it was Canada’s turn. Wayne Wouters, clerk of the Privy Council and Canada’s highest-ranking public servant, was host.

Of the 45 people in attendance, 10 were from the Canadian government, the remainder from the 33 other OECD countries or the secretariat. Harper himself participated in a roundtable discussion.

Partly because budgeted hospitality costs exceeded the $5,000 threshold imposed by government rules, Harper had to personally pre-approve the expected bill as head of the Privy Council Office. The prime minister’s signature was also necessary to OK the free alcohol.

“Every effort is being made to contain costs associated with this event,” Wouters wrote to Harper on Sept. 11, asking for his approval.

“As host, Canada is expected to provide a certain level of hospitality, including a reception to welcome delegates on the evening of their arrival and an official dinner.”

Wouters also noted that the budget for the reception “exceeds the maximum cost per person” as set by Treasury Board policy, yet another reason Harper had to sign off on the event.

The posh reception at the National Gallery of Canada cost $160 per person, more than three times the approved Treasury Board maximum of $46. Documents related to the event were obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

In the end, the final hospitality tab was trimmed to $16,000, said Raymond Rivet, spokesman for the Privy Council Office. He said the bill for the entire event was far lower than the initial budget of $300,000. The OECD hospitality tab is among the highest for any minister since the Tories first came to power in 2006.

Peter MacKay approved a $16,800 tab for Passport Canada staff in 2007, when he was foreign minister. And Harper approved one for Privy Council Office staff in 2010 for $7,400. Neither included alcohol.

Such tabs are not proactively posted as normally required on government websites because they are departmental, rather than personal, which makes comparisons difficult. The big Harper and MacKay tabs were only revealed through Access to Information Act requests.

The OECD event was held after the Harper government ordered dozens of federal departments and agencies to submit detailed plans by Oct. 3 to cut as much as 10 per cent of their budgets, for savings of up to $8 billion annually.

The meeting of OECD delegates included discussions about how member governments should implement deficit-fighting cuts.

“Participants agreed that restructuring, a difficult and challenging process, should be rapid, comprehensive and evidence-based, rather than piecemeal,” say minutes of the meeting.

“The watchword for restructuring should be ’transparency.’ … Visible signs of government openness and integrity are important to garner support for difficult choices.”

The Tories’ current program review, led by Tony Clement, the Treasury Board president, has been widely criticized for being conducted behind closed doors in an information vacuum.

The planned cuts are expected to be revealed in the coming federal budget, though a recent Treasury Board memo called on bureaucrats to leave details out of key departmental reports this spring.

The Harper government is paying consultant Deloitte Inc. almost $90,000 a day for advice on how to manage the cuts.

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