Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Small-scale spending scandals distract from big time government screw-ups

By: Matt Elliott Metro, Metro Published on Wed Oct 02 2013

Let's compare two stories.

In one, the governments of Toronto and Ontario waste, at minimum, tens of millions — maybe hundreds of millions — with foregone sunk costs and cancellation penalties piling up while they dithered around with transit projects that may or may not get built sometime before the invention of teleportation technology renders the whole discussion moot.

In the other, the CEO of an arm's length corporation set up by the government to manage the Pan Am and ParaPan Am games in 2015 submits an expense for 91 cents in parking costs.

Guess which is playing out as the bigger scandal?

The answer, of course, is the 91-cent parking expense. Duh.

There's an argument that voters tend to care more about small scandals — like the Pan Am expenses or those fancy city hall chairs we heard about last week — because they can better relate to them. It makes some sense. It's hard to contextualize numbers in the hundreds of millions, let alone billions. I've never bought a transit line — though my basement could use a subway connection — but I've paid for parking. And not to brag, but do I own a few chairs.

But that's not the whole story, is it? Public opinions don't just materialize out of thin air. They're framed and shaped by narratives — stories told by politicians and the media.

And politicians seem to love these kinds of stories about small-scale waste. They get to stand up and look real angry. They get to beat the drum about accountability. They get to call for somebody to get fired. Even government leaders, who may have to admit some responsibility for stories like this, seem to get a charge out of the response. It's easy politics.

None of it is very productive, of course. Usually these stories of overspending end with news that somebody has been fired. Maybe the government commissions some sort of audit or hearing, which often ends up costing multiple times more than the original abuse. Either way, there's never much appetite to actually look at the systemic issues that may have led to the alleged spending issues — because that would be challenging, not to mention requiring actual leadership.

So eventually these stories just fade away.

While they last, though, they do a great job of distracting from bigger government failures and screw-ups. We have an affordable housing waiting list lurching its way toward 100,000 households, crumbling infrastructure and a transit system that hasn't seen real investment in a generation, but, hey, look over there — bureaucracy is sometimes inefficient and that guy just tried to get you to pay for his parking spot.

That doesn't mean these kinds of things should be ignored. They just need to be contextualized. We should demand more from the political response than played-up anger, auditor's reports and firings. We should demand solutions when legitimate systemic problems are uncovered. But most importantly, we shouldn't play into the hands of political strategists who much prefer it when voters are sweating the small stuff.

This post was originally published at on 2013-10-02T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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