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:: ElectionWatch 2006

The year of entitlement  

[PoliticsWatch posted 5:00 p.m. December 23, 2005]

David Dingwall issued the quote of the year in Ottawa when he told a House committee he was "entitled to my entitlements." 

On October 19, David Dingwall was greeted by a wall of cameras as he walked into the a meeting room in the Centre Block.    

Dingwall's name had been in the news every day for nearly two weeks after he quickly dropped a six-figure job at the Royal Canadian Mint when his expenses became an issue in the media.

But he came prepared. And floored a number of reporters when he revealed that yes his expenses last year were $750,000, but that was for his entire cost centre.

That included his salary and the salary and benefits of two staffers. 

The salaries in fact represented more than two-thirds of what was being described as his expenses by the Conservatives in question period. 

Even though Dingwall said he had done nothing wrong regarding his expenses, he said he left his job to avoid a "firestorm" for the government and the Mint. 

Dingwall, a veteran politico, knew that the issue of expenses had become "the heroin of politics these days."

It seemed for the moment that the former Liberal cabinet minister had cleared his name on the expenses and would walk out of the committee room looking like a vindicated man who was wronged by scandal-craving reporters and opposition parties. 

But it was not to be.

It seemed Dingwall was determined not to clear the air about a rumoured severance package he was to receive for a job he voluntarily quit. 

Columnists and talk radio callers across the country were outraged about the government's plans to pay Dingwall a severance package. One report in the Toronto Star pegged that deal as perhaps as high as $500,000.

Even more outrageous was the prime minister and the Revenue Minister John McCallum saying daily in question period that Dingwall was entitled to a severance under the law. 

Even Liberal MPs couldn't understand it. 

MP Francoise Boivin, a former labour lawyer, told reporters at the time she wanted to see the legal reasoning why the government has to pay a severance. 

"I'm waiting to see the law that it would be based on. I have yet to see such a law," she noted.

"I'm just saying, 'Show me the law.' Not 'Show me the money,' but 'Show me the law.'"

Calgary Sun columnist Licia Corbella summed it up succinctly when she wrote that McCallum "can't point to the law because it doesn't exist. If it did, Canadians would simply make their living by quitting their jobs endlessly." 

But when Dingwall appeared before the committee the issue wasn't severance, he framed it as "entitlements."

During two hours of testimony, Dingwall used the word "entitlement" 27 times. 

When asked if he raised the issue of severance when he told McCallum he was quitting, Dingwall said, "I believe I raised the issue of entitlements, yes."

When asked if he thought he was owed a severance for a job he quit, again Dingwall opted to use the E-word. "I believe I have entitlements as a result of the performance I provided at the Royal Canadian Mint."

The frustrated MPs on the committee spent almost an hour with Dingwall trying to get him to say he thought he was owed a severance deal for a job he quit. 

NDP MP Ed Broadbent, who perhaps was the best performer in the committee that day in Parliament all year, cornered him and asked, "Do you think you're ethically entitled to severance pay?"

Again Dingwall stonewalled and said it was a legal question, not an ethical question. 

Broadbent pressed and what emerged was the moment that seemed to sum up all critics see as wrong with the party that has been in power for 12 years. 

"You're trying to say that I'm not entitled to my entitlements," Dingwall angrily shot back to Broadbent. 

"I am entitled to my entitlements, and if that includes severance, so be it."

After that, soon the word entitlement was on everybody's tongue in Ottawa.

And that was bolstered more when Justice John Gomery published his report on the sponsorship scandal a few weeks later that echoed a similar theme. 

In one of his major findings, Gomery said there was "the existence of a 'culture of entitlement,' among political officials and bureaucrats involved with the sponsorship program, including the receipt of monetary and non-monetary benefits."

Dingwall's statement and Gomery's judicial finding of a culture of entitlement has created an entitlement theme for the opposition parties and some editorial attacks of the government. 

The NDP's Web site asks visitors to "Take the Liberal 'Culture of Entitlement' Quiz."

It continued just a few days after Dingwall's appearance when reporters found out MPs and public servants were going to get an increase in their gas expenses to cover for rising oil prices, while the government refused to reduce taxes on fuel prices for the rest of us.

Then the Ottawa Sun reported that Liberal staffers receiving severance deals when they voluntarily quit was a common practice. 

But long before Gomery and Dingwall, Toronto Star columnist Chantal Hebert wrote about the culture of entitlement, calling it "the private club mentality that has apparently permeated the upper levels of the government and the devil-may-care attitude that stems from it." 

This year, the culture of entitlement was exposed and it continues to the bitter end.

In fact, the final act of the Liberals before the year ends appears to be part of this entitlement mentality. 

In order to save money, the party plans to layoff campaign staff for the week after Christmas Sunday and have them return to their public service jobs to either collect their vacation pay or work on the slowest week of the year. This of course is while about 90 per cent of other public servants are at home and not much is happening in Ottawa. 

While this does not break any election financing laws, none of the other parties are allowing their staff to do this. 

And the plan has the full endorsement of the prime minister, who tells reporters that those Liberal campaigners will be at their desks next and they "better be working" hard. 

If you ask senior Liberals about this all them will agree the optics don't look good, but it's not illegal, so there is nothing wrong with this.

Ask any career non-political public servant in Ottawa about this and you'll get an angry response with arms flailing in the air about what a double standard this is.

One Liberal spin doctor appeared on television to defend the plan and what Martin said and noted that a lot of the staffers won't be slaving away at their desks after all but could be spending that week on vacation visiting their parents in Florida. 

For the average Canadian getting by at around the $30,000 mark the comments are a projection of the world Liberals in Ottawa inhabit and it's not one they live in.

Retiring to Florida is a privilege few of them can afford. And taking a vacation to Florida for Christmas also isn't something most Canadians and their families have the resources for on top of all the other holiday expenses.

If the 38th Parliament was the film A Few Good Men, then Broadbent and Dingwall's exchange was the equivalent of Jack Nicholson's "You can't handle the truth moment."

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