Review calls for more transparency around expense program for former governors general

Currently, the program allows former governors general to bill the government up to $206,040 annually for the rest of their lives

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OTTAWA — The federal government should ensure more transparency around the expense program for former governors general, says an independent report ordered after the National Post reported on the issue in 2018.

Not only are the expenses hidden from public view, there’s also no consistent reporting of the activities of former governors general — which makes assessing the program’s effectiveness “a difficult undertaking,” the report says.

The report also recommends the government look at imposing a time limit on how long the expenses can be claimed. Currently, the program allows former governors general to bill the government up to $206,040 annually for the rest of their lives. For example, Ed Schreyer still qualifies to have his expenses covered despite having last been governor general in 1984, and having re-entered partisan politics in 2006 to run unsuccessfully for the House of Commons as a New Democrat.

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With Julie Payette resigning as governor general last week over a workplace review scandal, the expense program is back under the spotlight and the government is under renewed pressure to reform it.

The expense program is in addition to the annual pension (standing at $149,484) that former governors general receive for life, regardless of how or when they leave office. It’s also in addition to the multi-million dollar grant governors general receive toward establishing their own charitable foundation after they leave office.

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After the Post reported in October 2018 that former governor general Adrienne Clarkson had billed the government well over $1.1 million since leaving office in 2005, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised a review of the program, particularly around its lack of transparency. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation obtained the full report through an access-to-information request, posting it online on Tuesday.

The program, originally set up in 1979, “should be updated to provide for more detailed public reporting on former Governors General expenses such as currently exists for Members in the House of Commons,” says the report, written by consultant Alain Seguin, a former financial officer with the Treasury Board and other federal departments.

Currently there is no mandated public disclosure of how the money is being spent, and the program is not subject to access-to-information requests. Only former governor general David Johnston has voluntarily disclosed his expenses to the public.

“The more detailed public reporting of expenses should be administered and published centrally by the Office of the Secretary to the Governor General,” the report says.

Seguin says that in reviewing the expense claims, he didn’t see anything that appeared out of line with the intent of the program, which is to cover expenses related to a former governor general’s time in office such as handling correspondence, speechwriting, travel and hospitality.

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However, he noted there is often no record of what former governors general are actually doing.

“Measuring the effectiveness of the former Governor General support program in 2019 in meeting the intended objective of the 1979 Cabinet decision was a difficult undertaking,” the report says. “Unfortunately, this review found very limited user-friendly information on the activities or responsibilities of former Governors General stemming from their time in office.”

“Providing information on the activities, titles and engagements of former Governors General would be an important first step to begin to piece together a meaningful assessment as to whether the program, as it exists, is meeting its intended objective derived in 1979,” the report goes on to say.

The report also looks at whether the expense program should be capped at a certain number of years.

“While interviews with key stakeholders argued both sides of whether the length of time for the support program should be for life or not, the majority tended to favour some further evaluation of the merits of stopping expense support payments after a defined number of years of leaving office,” the report says.

“Consideration should be given to evaluating the merits of having support payments end after a defined number of years of leaving office rather than the current for-life regime.”

Ed Schreyer still qualifies to have his expenses covered — up to $206,040 annually — despite having last been governor general in 1984.
Ed Schreyer still qualifies to have his expenses covered — up to $206,040 annually — despite having last been governor general in 1984. Photo by Marianne Helm for Postmedia/File

There is still no timeline for when the government may make changes to the program, despite having the report in hand for more than a year. Emails obtained through access-to-information by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation show the Privy Council Office had prepared a briefing note titled “Modernizing Financial Support for Former Governors General” in February 2020, but then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and any changes appear to have been put on pause.

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“Work continues to determine how best to ensure that the program continues to function in an effective manner,” said a brief Privy Council Office statement in response to the Post on Tuesday. The statement did not respond to a second question about whether Payette’s access to the program is under review, as Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland had indicated in a CBC interview on Monday.

Aaron Wudrick, federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said he’d prefer to see the program scrapped all together, but at the very least it should be reformed.

“Anything that puts some limits on it — number of years, lower annual maximum (it’s more than the pension figure!), more proactive disclosure requirement — would be a welcome improvement,” he said.

• Email: bplatt@postmedia.com | Twitter:

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