“We run a $40 billion corporation that matters an awful lot to the people of Alberta and the economy of this country”—former Premier Redford in the Legislature, March 4, 2014
Excuse me??? The “government” is not a “corporation”, its premier is not the CEO and the cabinet is not the executive leadership team. Unfortunately Ms Redford and her team failed to grasp this distinction (hint: it hinges on the concept of “public service”).
Last week’s revelation that Alison Redford ordered changes, commonly referred to as the “Premier’s Penthouse”, as part of the ongoing renovations to the Federal Building demonstrates just how far the PC government has drifted from the ideal of public service.
The Federal Building
The Federal Building is a landmark art deco building built in 1958. The government is updating the building to make it suitable for MLA offices and government staff. The renovation contract was tendered in 2008.
The government expects the project to cost $375 million and to be completed in 2015. One small snag—the project will be four years late and $100 million over budget.
In the real world heads would roll. But in the world of government this was a non-event—until the CBC discovered the Premier’s Penthouse nestled away on the 11th floor. Then it turned into a political nightmare.
The penthouse that refused to die
In January 2012 Ms Redford added a penthouse at the top of the Federal Building. Architects prepared plans for a 2,500 square foot space that included two bedrooms, a bathroom, powder room, walk-in closet, butler’s pantry and dining, study and lounge areas. She was partial to the refined style of the Hay Adams Hotel in Boston and was soon reviewing plans and requesting colour boards. Her staff met with Edmonton city planners to smooth over the public notice requirements for an “occupancy” permit. Everyone was busy bringing Ms Redford’s dream to fruition. The total cost was $740,000. And it was all coming out of the taxpayer’s pocket.
At some point prior to Nov 15, 2012 Infrastructure Minister Wayne Drysdale learned about the Premier’s Penthouse (it’s not clear from whom or how) and did something (it’s not clear what) and as a result of these actions (whatever they were) it was his “understanding” that the Premier’s Penthouse would be replaced by two boardrooms and additional hosting space.
On Dec 2013 Mr Drysdale and Mr McIver switched jobs…thank god or the contractors would soon be putting the finishing touches on a butler’s pantry for a premier who is no longer in public service.
Mr McIver moved to Infrastructure and Mr Drysdale moved to Transportation. Someone (again) informed the new Infrastructure minister, Mr McIver, about the Premier’s Penthouse. This thing was like a zombie that refused to die 14 months after it had been killed by Mr Drysdale.
Mr McIver visited the site, confirmed that work was ongoing and put a stop to it. Apparently the Premier’s office did not push back.
A nonexistent “system” of checks and balances
Now this is where it gets interesting. According to Mr Lukaszuk, then the deputy premier, no one in caucus had any idea that Ms Redford had ordered the Premier’s Penthouse. The fact that this exposes a glaring lack of checks and balances seems to have gone right over Mr Lukaszuk’s head. In his view: “If one really goes out of their way and chooses to break the rules, they will do so—but usually the system will catch them—and this is a prime example of that.”
What nonsense! Ms Redford commissioned her penthouse in Jan 2012. The change orders, emails, visits from the Premier’s staff, whatever, that triggered these renovations continued to flow unchallenged for two full years.
There was no “system” in place to catch a breach of process that earmarked $740,000 in taxpayer dollars for the Premier’s personal use. There was no “system” in place to ensure that a direct order from a cabinet minister, Mr Drysdale, was indeed carried out. Lastly, there was no “system” in place to enlighten Mr Drysdale and/or a small group of cabinet ministers that an unauthorized construction project had not been terminated after he’d issued the “tools down” order because according to Mr Lucaszuk, no one in caucus knew about the Premier’s Penthouse until they learned about it from the CBC.
And that, my friends, is frightening.
The PC government may think it’s running a “$40 billion corporation” but the Federal Building renovation project demonstrates that the MLAs we’ve entrusted to make prudent expenditures on our behalf are not capable of running a hot dog stand.
If the government were a corporation its board of directors would demand an audit (and we should demand one here) and fire the executives in charge of a project that came in $100 million over budget and 4 years late.
But Albertans are coping with a government, not a corporation. We don’t have the luxury of firing the PC cabinet ministers responsible for the Premier’s Penthouse. But in 2016 we will have the pleasure of hanging a sign on the newly renovated Federal Building. It will say “Under New Management”. Oh Happy Day!!!