Premier Alison Redford and health minister Fred Horne speak to the media regarding a lawsuit that the province will be filing against tobacco manufacturers to recover health care costs associated with smoking-related illnesses at the Alberta Legislature Building in Edmonton on Wednesday, May 30, 2012.
Credits: CODIE MCLACHLAN/EDMONTON SUN QMI AGENCY
While the government touts transparency and accountability, the truth is that the Alberta government's current system for posting expenditures online is the opposite of transparent.
That's according to critics incensed by lax documentation that makes it impossible to tell who entertained who, what they consumed, and why they met at all.
"I find it insulting to even say this is expenses posting - it's not. It's not even remotely close," said Scott Hennig, the Alberta director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.
In June, for example, Alberta's energy ministry posted $5,000 for goods, supplies and services.
"That's posting global office budget figures - that's not posting your expenses," Hennig said.
"Alberta is well behind other jurisdictions in this."
Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith said greater detail is needed in online expense accounting.
"We need a new policy to have detailed expenses, and we need to define who needs to be recording expenses at such a detailed level," she said.
The public is scratching their heads over the premier's $84,000-mission to the London Olympics, Smith said.
"We'll have no greater clarity when she gets back and posts expenses, because it will all be lump amounts," Smith said.
There's expenses and then there's expenses.
In 2008, Agriculture Minister George Groeneveld and his executive assistant went to Geneva, Switzerland to press Alberta's trade interests and priorities in the World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations through discussions and meeting with Canada's agriculture and trade ministers, ambassadors/representatives of key WTO member countries, and WTO officials during the WTO ministerial meetings.
For one week of meals, the two spent $424.41.
In March 2005, Allaudin Merali expensed $220 for a single meal with Fred Horne, then a health care consultant for the province. Now the Minister of Health, Horne can't recall the occasion - and there is no explanation on Merali's expense detail.
With 30,000 public servants - and another 90,000 in Alberta Health Service - concerns about senior management and elected officials "who appear to have free license to spend money without oversight," aren't to be ignored, Smith said.
"The public confidence has been shattered because of the Merlani scandal," Smith said.
"People want to see what the expenses are, and Ms. Redford would do well to heed public outcry," she said, adding that increased scrutiny should have a deterrent effect on those who might throw taxpayer money around.
Hennig said the federal government has cracked down on individual expense accounting, who incurred what, how many people were at meetings where.
"You still have to FOIP the receipt, but it's head and shoulders above what we've got in Alberta," Hennig said.
The City of Toronto is the gold standard for expense disclosure for politicians on city council, Hennig said.
"The receipts are scanned, you can see exactly what the purchase was, the day, the location, who was a part of it," he said.
Even within Alberta, the Auditor General's office lists their expenses with a quarterly spreadsheet, (as does Jill Clayton, the information privacy commissioner.)
That means the Auditor General department's "Retirement Celebration for two long-service staff members held in the Office Classroom (84 Attendees), $3,125," is public record, as is "Annual Social Club Christmas staff meeting held at the Matrix Hotel in Edmonton (137 Attendees) - $4,500."
"These are voluntary - they don't have to. There's no requirement for government to post expenses, unfortunately," Hennig said.
So why should Albertans be up in arms over Merali's gold-plated tastes and Sheila Weatherill's sign-off on it? "It's your money, and you ... expect at the very least it's going to be spent in an appropriate manner for services you want and need," Hennig said.
"You have every right to know."
Quotes from Premier Alison Redford from a radio interview were circulated by her communications staff Friday.
Redford was asked what Albertans should make of the Merali debacle.
"I think this is a terrible situation that happened in the old Capital Health Region system, as I understand it, five years ago, a time before I was even elected," she said.
"I think it it's very disappointing, I don't think it is appropriate conduct and I am pleased to see that the right decision was taken with respect to terminating the employee and that the board member chose to leave.
"My view would have been that if those two things hadn't happened that we as a government would have certainly stepped in and ensured that the same result was delivered."
Auditor General Merwan Saher said he has been asked to review the current Alberta Health Service expense accounting procedures.
"Once done, we will make that public," he said.