Recently, a woman on Facebook asked: “Who can we trust with public money?”
She’d just learned that Brian Jean is responsible for a $322,000 deficit in the Wildrose caucus budget. She’d also learned that prior to the disclosure, Wildrose MLAs had sought clarification and information about that budget, only to be rebuffed or stonewalled.
Many people don’t seem to understand the difference between the Wildrose party budget and the Wildrose caucus budget. The party budget consists of voluntary memberships and donations, and is the responsibility of the party president. The caucus budget is funded by taxpayers, and is the responsibility of the legislative caucus leader—in this case, Brian Jean.
Not a dime of caucus money is supposed to be spent on partisan political activities. Its sole purpose is to support the work of the men and women who’ve been elected, paying for their support staff and affiliated work as “legislators.” If a caucus leader did hire workers for party business or to campaign for someone’s leadership bid, it’d be an infraction of the rules.
Yet bumping against the rules is exactly what many have accused Jean of doing. Leading up to the unity vote, Jean increased caucus staffing levels and spending by 30%. Jason Kenney is quoted as referring to the overspending as Jean’s “shadow leadership campaign at taxpayers’ expense.”
Former Wildrose MLA Scott Cyr—an accountant before his election—was so concerned about Jean’s management of caucus funds that he earlier sent a formal inquiry asking for an explanation. The Edmonton Sun reports that even then, Cyr was never allowed open access to caucus budget documents.
Rick Strankman, MLA for Drumheller-Stettler, made repeated requests for a written flowchart explaining exactly who all the new people were, what they did, and to whom they reported. Partial information was presented, yet Strankman never received a comprehensive explanation—neither was the requested written flowchart provided.
Edmonton Sun columnist Lorne Gunter said that given the size of Jean’s caucus budget—paid for by taxpayers—his deficit is 21% of the total. Rachel Notley’s deficit is 19% of Alberta’s budget. “Jean simply looks like any other loose-with-a-buck politician,” Gunter concluded.
Jean and his defenders insist that if Jean had been allowed to manage the budget over a full one-year period, it would have ended in balance. Yet there is no next year or six months from now for the Wildrose caucus. It’s done. Jean deliberately boosted spending, carried a huge deficit to the finish line, and dropped it there.
Now that the two parties have merged, and MLAs Fildebrandt and Starke are independents, the United Conservative Party (UCP) caucus budget for the rest of the year is about $1.9 million. Jean’s deficit must be taken from that, or gotten from constituency budgets held by individual MLAs.
Four candidates are seeking leadership of the UCP: Brian Jean; Jeff Callaway, a former Wildrose president; Doug Schweitzer, past CEO of Manitoba’s PC Party and campaign manager for short-term Premier Jim Prentice; and Jason Kenney, a former leader of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation who held four federal cabinet positions. In Ottawa, Kenney managed huge portfolios, coming in under budget every single year, even posting surpluses up to 25%.
So which of these individuals do you think we should—or should not—trust with public money?
John Satink—Satink is a long-time southern Alberta business owner and a board member/director of Grassroots Alberta, a provincial non-profit society. (www.GrassrootsAlberta.ca)