30 July 2008

Phoning it in

Education minister Joan Burke turned up this morning as the first caller on Open Line with Randy Simms.

She was calling from Stephenville, or "from the district" as Simms put it.

He made it sound like Burke was just back in her district for a visit.

After all, that's likely what you'd expect given that the department she runs is headquartered in St. John's. Being a minister is usually a busy life, even in the summer, what with the meetings related to cabinet and the meetings in the department and just being available to sign all those letters that have to be signed even in an age of computers and e-mail.

Thing is, Burke likely wasn't just stopping in for a visit.

And she likely isn't the only minister who tends to head back to the district during the times the House isn't in session.

Something keeps coming back to your humble e-scribbler about a comment Burke made having to do with ministerial expenses. There was a document establishing her primary residence, which, if memory serves, government officials expected would be in St. John's while she held Her Majesty's commission. The declaration was part of determining what set of expense rules from treasury board would apply.

Burke's comment stood out as she found that form a bit problematic, given her primary residence was in Stephenville. There was some mumbling criticism about the whole arrangement reflecting the "old boys club" of politics.

Now memories can be faulty, not the least of which being the one between the ears of your humble e-scribbler, so it's possible that wasn't exactly what was said.

The old boys club crack just stood out, though, because it was from straight out of left field. Why would it be surprising that an employer would expect you to live within easy commuting distance of the place where your job was located? There's something sexist in that?

Anyway, Tom Marshall is another minister not originally from the capital city who seems to spend a whack of time working from somewhere other than the Confederation Building.

Sit and think for a second and you could probably come up with a bunch of ministers who have offices and work responsibilities in the capital city but who seem to spend a huge amount of time not in the office.

Well, not in the main office. Marshall likely has a suite in the provincial government building in Corner Brook. Burke too, could likely scare up a bit of space in Stephenville.

John Hickey? Patty Pottle? Trevor Taylor? Tom Rideout when he was still a minister? Charlene Johnson? Kevin O'Brien?

These are just tossed out as possible examples because their districts are not within typical daily commuting distance of the metropolitan region.

Any of them keep two offices and work from home, home being somewhere other than within an easy commute of Sin Jawns?

This is not just a matter of some mouldy old rule after all. The cost of maintaining duplicate offices can be steep. Add to that the cost of having to grab a quickie flight at full fare from Stephenville - for argument sake - and then hopping back the same day just to do a media scrum.

Then there are the regular cabinet meetings and the committee meetings and all the rest.

Pretty soon, the cost of commuting like this would get to be a tidy sum.

Then there are the intangible costs. It would be much easier to meet and discuss some business face to face rather than do it by e-mail or over-the-phone. Ministers living in St. John's - where their main office is located - also have the chance to be more accessible to news media in a slow period during the summer. It gives all sorts of opportunities to increase the amount of information government provides to the public on its activities.

Well, that assumes government wants to give more information or that ministers are capable of doing more than parroting prepared lines, but let's just work on the assumption the current situation is an aberration in the great scheme of things.

Still it seemed a little odd that Burke was in St. John's for a 2:45 newser on Tuesday and then bright and early on Wednesday morning was safe on the west coast again.

Maybe it's just a misperception but then again, there have been too many references to some sort of dual office arrangement over the past couple of years to make it a case of being completely mistaken.

There's a subject for a little bit of investigative reporting.

In the meantime, it might be worthwhile to keep track of the number of cabinet ministers who are phoning in their media hits during times when the House is not in session.