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Expense account outrages? Only in government, you say? Puleeze!

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Raj Sherman

Alberta's health care gong show continued to wheeze along yesterday with another revelation by the CBC that a couple of senior execs at a publicly funded Catholic care provider bought expensive bottles of wine at lunchtime and billed them to their taxpayer-financed expense accounts.

Since the original founder of the Catholic Church is said to have made pretty good wine but also to have spoken disparagingly about extravagance, one could easily be conflicted about the $110 bottle of Il Piggione 2001 purchased by Covenant Health VP Jeffery Robinson in 2008.

But me, I have to admit I'm having trouble getting my knickers in a twist about this particular episode of the CBC's long-running expense accounts series. Perhaps expense claims fatigue syndrome is setting in. Leastways, I felt that way until I heard Alberta Liberal Leader Raj Sherman's bloviations on the topic.

Dr. Sherman has been pretty quiet for the past few days while the Wildrose Party on the right and the New Democrats on the left did the heavy opposition lifting on this issue. (Government members got their exercise by running … away!)

So Sherman must've felt it was time for him and his Albertaliberals, Liberalbertans or whatever it is they’re calling themselves nowadays to step back into the ongoing brouhaha. He’s a medical man, don'tcha know, and therefore uniquely qualified to prescribe instant cures for all the Alberta health system's many ailments.

"Here we have a religious organization -- good people, God's people -- spending money on alcohol," Sherman told the CBC. (So far, so good; with previous caveat about God and alcohol in mind.)

He went on: "You tell me, which employer will allow their employees to start drinking on the job and ask the employer to pay for it? I only find this in government. It's ridiculous and ludicrous."

OK. Ridiculous and ludicrous it is, I guess. But Sherman only finds this in government? Excuse me? He must have lived a sheltered life. Sheltered in particular from the routine practices of the so-called business community, where making shareholders pay for a glass or two of high-priced booze at lunch is not exactly unheard of.

The difference, of course, between the expense account practices of the public and the private sectors is that everything in the private sector is a total secret. Shareholders and customers pay, and we never find out. The extravagances are much worse, but no one knows about them because (a) it's a secret, and (b) we've been thoroughly propagandized into believing businessmen can do what they want with "their" money. And it's still "their" money, in this view, even when it comes indirectly from taxpayers' pockets via contracts with public agencies.

If there's a reason expense account abuses are becoming more prevalent in the public sector, its said here, it's because for the past 30 years or so we've been buying into this barrage of palpably false right-wing propaganda about how business does everything better.

So if we have to hire half-million-dollar-a-year executives instead of career public servants to run our public enterprises, they're bound to bring their questionable private sector perks with them. And that includes, I'd suggest, $100-plus bottles of wine with lunch.

Indeed, now the rot is seeping more deeply into the public service where we feel compelled to pay outrageous private-sector salaries to get "the best people" and end up instead with some who are, let's say, not the best.

The idea of public service -- which was what built our great national public institutions, including our universities and public health care -- has gone out the window, to the great detriment of our society.

Is it only me, or is it powerfully ironic that we hired these characters from the world of business to run our public services (and in many cases, where right-wing governments are in the driver's seat, to intentionally run them into the ground to justify their privatization) and now we're complaining that the managerial malpractices they brought with them are typical of the public sector?

Or, as Sherman outrageously misstates the facts, "I only find this in government"? Please!

We'd do better to consciously try to recreate the public service model of the not-so-distant past than pay attention to the anti-public-service blatherings of Sherman, a former Tory health apparatchik himself.

While we're speaking of Alberta’s doctors, as predicted last time in this space, Alberta Health Minister Fred Horne now appears willing to restart negotiations with the Alberta Medical Association after he unilaterally ended them.

According to the Globe and Mail, Horne now says he's willing to reopen talks with the docs -- but not about money. However, with the physicians' powerful union threatening job action -- while promising to do nothing to harm their patients -- you can expect the government to crater soon on that commitment too.

This is not necessarily bad news for any group that faces negotiations with the Alberta government in the next couple of years, and the political consequences for the government are probably less severe than those of a full-blown physicians’ uprising as the next general election in 2016 grows closer.

+ + +

I've been ranting here for months about how there's only one true word in the title Canadian Taxpayers Federation, and that's Canadian. And for all we know, even that might not be true.

It's certainly not a federation and it surely doesn’t represent the interests of taxpayers. It's another far-right AstroTurf group set up to advance the neoconservative agenda of "austerity," anti-unionism and corporate tax breaks.

So what a delight it was to read of the CTF in Thomas Walkom's column in the Toronto Star yesterday morning that this group "is an interest group, not a federation of taxpayers." Thank you, Mr. Walkom, for stating this obvious and necessary truth. I believe this is a first for mainstream media.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

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