Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Where is the balance between helping refugees and fiscal responsibility?

Published for the Prince Arthur Herald

What is the balance between settling the world’s refugees and the reasonable need and expectation that the Canadian government should be trusted to responsibly monitor Canada’s pocketbook?

It’s a fair question.

But before answering, let’s dispatch with the ridiculous notion that any questioning of anything to do with the resettlement of Syrian refugees is inherently racist. Ever since Ontario Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne said that opposing the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Canada was racist, anyone asking any questions has had to wonder whether they too would be so hyperbolically labeled. (Wynne’s rhetoric was so vile and unprofessional that even former Liberal cabinet minister and British Columbia Premier Ujjal Dosanjh denounced her.)

Polls have shown that Canadians are overwhelmingly supportive of welcoming refugees into Canada, and all three political parties pledged to do more to settle refugees in the recent federal election. Canadians don’t reproduce enough to maintain a sustainable population level, we have long-relied on immigration to sustain and increase our population, and assisting people fleeing from blood-thirsty terrorists is a laudable goal.

But that doesn’t mean that questions about the logistics, efficiency, and costs of doing so should be off the table from public questioning and scrutiny. Canadians should be able to expect that the government has their interests in mind – that the government will continue to be fiscally responsible regardless of how admirable the end goal is.

A recent social media post currently making the rounds makes the following claim:

This morning’s Vancouver Sun states that Syrian refugees will be paid a meal allowance per person per day of $15 for breakfast, $16 for lunch, and $30 for dinner by the Federal Government. Thus, a typical family with four kids will receive $186/day or $5580/month for meals alone. This from a government that somehow cannot afford more than about $1100/month for all expenses for pensioners.”

The premise is correct but the conclusions are not. The Vancouver Sun article does indeed say that the government “will reimburse up to $15 per person for breakfast, $16 for lunch, and $30 for dinner.” Those figures come from the government’s request for proposal, publicly posted and available since December 10, 2015. A family of four is therefore entitled to up to $244 in meals per day ($60 for breakfast, $64 for lunch, and $120 for dinner; or $61 per person), or $7320 per month – much higher figures than the viral post suggests.

This is not money going directly into refugees’ pockets – it’s the maximum per-day caps for which the government will reimburse the hotels that are accommodating the refugees. The average Canadian family spent $411 per month on groceries in 2013 – or less than 6% of what the Liberals are reimbursing for refugees’ food. Let’s consider that there would be some added expense due to the fact that each refugee would be limited in his or her ability to keep and prepare food in their hotel rooms, meaning the hotels would need to prepare more easy-to-store convenience foods. However, that expense would be more than offset by the fact that hotels can prepare meals in bulk, which should make the meals cheaper, not more expensive, than if a family of four were preparing the same meals at home. It’s hard to see how these meal caps are not at least a little rich.

This is not a question of food quality, nor is it a question of quantity. But you have to wonder why hotels wouldn’t charge the maximum amounts for reimbursement, knowing full-well that the government has already determined that those amounts are reasonable.

For perspective, public servants traveling away from home on government business are reimbursed up to $16 for breakfast, $16.80 for lunch, and $44.40 for dinner – basically the same as the refugees’ reimbursement for breakfast and lunch but more generous for supper. In this instance, too, the public servants are away from home, in temporary accommodations - probably a hotel – and do not have the ability to keep and prepare food as if they were at home with a stove, oven, and large fridge. But in this instance the need to be staying in a hotel is directly related to government business, it’s for a short-term (the benefit for a public servant drops to 75% after the 31st day - not so for the refugees), and, unlike the refugees, costs cannot be reduced by preparing food in bulk.

Canadians should be able to judge for themselves whether these meal expenses are appropriate and necessary or lavish and expensive. Canada spends $12 per day to feed one prisoner. No one is suggesting that refugees could or should be fed the same food as prisoners, but surely there is a reasonable balance to be found between $12 and $61 per person per day.

Finally, there is the matter of the “consultants” and numerous add-on services that risk embarrassing the government. Montreal’s refugee coordinator making $1800 per day was rightly embarrassing. Why Montreal could not employ a city employee, why the city hired someone with a close personal connection to the mayor, and how the salary figure of $1800 per day was chosen are all valid questions. With salaries like this you can bet that Canadians are going to begin to ask whether the Liberals are really keeping the finances in mind at a time like this, and if there will ever be a point where the government says ‘this is too much.’

Saving refugees from some of the world’s worst warzones is an admirable goal. And to be clear, the Liberals have not exceeded their announced budget of $1.2 billion over six years for settling refugees (yet). But the government owes it to Canadians to continue to manage our finances prudently, ensure that Canadians receive good value for the money we spend, and ensure that suppliers provide services at reasonable rates comparable to what Canadians receive.