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June 7, 2012

Photo Op Choreography

How many years does a typical BC family have to pay income tax in order to cover the costs of staging one photo op for the Premier? Not including the cost of whatever is being announced, just the cost of choreographing government announcements can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

According to provincial budget documents, the average two income family of four with $60,000 income pays $1,190 in provincial income taxes. That figure should be posted in bold type on the desk of every politician. All too often politicians and bureaucrats used to dealing with billions of dollars think that wasting a few thousand is no big deal. Politicians should think about how many years families have to work and pay taxes in order to pay for what is trivial to government.

Governments of all political stage photo ops in order to make announcements that could be done at little or no cost from an otherwise vacant room in the legislature or a government office. The typical photo op involves setting up a sound system, chairs, a tent, graphics and occasionally refreshments. Big events, like the kickoff of the Premier's jobs plan, can involve dozens of staff, planes and other transportation to multiple venues.

To their credit, various media have attempted to root-out how much government spends on some of its announcements; the responses to information requests are posted on the government website. A search on the term "announcement" reveals several media requests for expenses and receipts. Unfortunately, our "open government" either ignores such requests or returns blank pages stamped with the section number in the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act that is used as an excuse to keep information secret. Looking through the pages of information that aren't blank, you can see that many announcements are planned like major logistic operations. For example, 67 pages provided in response to a request for information on the November 5, 2011 announcement of a $17 million fund in support of programs to encourage the use of clean-energy vehicles begins with a staffer writing: "Finished up with the big Education announcement today so will pour my energies into this one tomorrow." An even more elaborate planning exercise was revealed in response to a request for information on Premier Christy Clark's September 19, 2011 announcement on liquefied natural gas (LNG) in Kitimat. No receipts or budgets were revealed, but the 49 pages provided in response (the first 24 of which were whited-out) read like a small military invasion was being planned.

Our typical family, paying $1,190 per year in income tax, would have to pay taxes all their life to cover just a fraction of what it costs to stage that announcement. When you think about it, nothing was said for all that expense that couldn't have been said from the Premier's office or by news release. Of course, regions affected by government announcements deserve to have ministers and the Premier present, but that can be done for the cost of a plane ticket while chopping thousands spent on unnecessary choreographing. Much of that expense amounts to government campaigning at public expense.

You can expect to see a lot of that type of campaigning with expensive photo ops between now and the May 14, 2013 election. Every time you do, think how long you'll pay taxes to cover unnecessary costs.