Canada’s MPs, Our Money and the Waiting Game

In the past couple of days, there have been developments on the proposed audit of Canada’s Parliamentary budget of $583 million (fiscal 2010) including MPs expenses, and the ensuing storm that occurred when the Auditor-General was refused access by the all-party Board of Internal Economy. News reports from last week suggest that the deadlock will be broken this week and Ms. Fraser will be invited to discuss the issue with the Board.

On Friday evening, the Globe and Mail posted this item in their Ottawa Notebook about Liberal MP Michelle Simson. I’ve written about Ms. Simson, MP for Scarborough Southwest previously; she is one of three MPs (the others being Rob Oliphant and Marlene Jennings) who, in the interest of full disclosure, have posted their MP expenses on their websites. These voluntary disclosures ensure their constituents that they are spending taxpayers money responsibly. Good on all three of them!

According to the Globe article, Ms. Simson is not popular with many of her fellow Liberal caucus members. Some of her fellow caucus members, including Mr. Ignatieff, believe that she is making them look bad because of the proactive nature of her actions. Here’s what the Globe had to say about Mr. Ignatieff’s reaction to Ms. Simson’s actions:

"Rather than praising her and encouraging other MPs to follow her lead, however, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff told members not to do what she did. He told his caucus to stick together and not to be mavericks on this issue. He is concerned that different MPs could post difference expenses, creating the perception of inequities"

Here’s a solution Mr. Ignatieff. Have one of the Liberal Party accountants prepare all of your MP’s expense statements so they are all reporting expenses in the same fashion to make it easy for Canadians to understand, then post them online. See, Mr. Ignatieff, that wasn’t so bad was it? Give Canadians more credit; most of us are capable of deciding what is fair and what is wrong.

I’d like to ask Mr. Ignatieff whether Ms. Simson represents the constituents who elected her, the Liberal Party or her fellow caucus members when she sits in the House. It is only her constituents that elected her, not the Liberal Party (or its Leader) and certainly not the Liberal caucus: it is her constituents that she is responsible to first and foremost.

The issue of representation seems to be lost on today’s politicians. The impending third reading of Bill C-391 is a prime example. This Private Member’s Bill that would see the abolition of the gun registry is currently in Committee and will be brought back to Parliament for, what Mr. Ignatieff has told his caucus, will be a “whipped” vote. All Liberals will be expected to vote along Liberal Party lines (against the Bill) regardless of the wishes of their constituents. While you may agree with the Liberals on this particular issue, it is the principle of whipped votes that I disagree with and it is an issue that the former Reform Party attempted to tackle back in their early days before they sold out to "business as usual" on Parliament Hill.

Back to Ms. Simson. During the 2008 election, she promised her constituents that she would be accountable to them and that they would see where she spent their money. She is now doing exactly what she promised her constituents she would do if elected, a highly unexpected turn of events on Parliament Hill and something that deserves respect.

Last week, another Liberal MP, Rob Oliphant, also made the right decision and posted his MP expenses online. It certainly looks like Mr. Ignatieff is experiencing yet another "palace revolt"; now three of his MPs have gone against the party line and have done what they feel is in the best interest of their constituents, the same thing that happened on the second reading of Bill C-391.

On Sunday, Craig Oliver of CTV’s Question Period had the privilege of interviewing Canada’s Auditor-General Sheila Fraser, a person that most Canadians both respect and trust. In the interview, Ms. Fraser told Mr. Oliver that she is waiting for a formal invitation from the Board of Internal Economy as the next step toward auditing the expenses of both the House and the Senate. Once the invitation is extended, she will meet with the Clerk of the House of Commons (and Secretary to the Board) Audrey O’Brien to discuss the scope of the audit and exactly what aspects of expenditures she will be allowed to access. She hopes to audit MP expenses as part of the examination of financial issues but will also examine broader management, security and information technology issues.

Ms. Fraser noted that it is unusual to have an audit with any restrictions (imagine if a publicly traded company told an auditor that they couldn’t have access to all of their financial transactions); she stated that she was concerned that if any access restrictions were in place, that the audit would not be credible. She noted that she would not be judging "value for money", rather, she would be looking at "performance"; whether a program is achieving economy, efficiency and effectiveness (i.e. whether it meets certain goals). She will not be telling the House (and by extension, Canadians) whether the program or expenditure has merit; that will be up to the public to decide. She anticipates that the audit will take 12 to 18 months to complete.

Let’s hope that our elected officials bend to the will of those that elect them, do the right thing and release all of the information necessary to complete a credible audit. If they don’t, Canadians’ trust in our political system will sink even further. It’s about time Canada’s MPs realize that most Canadians simply don’t trust them. They need to take a step away from the palace on Parliament Hill and show some respect for those who send their tax dollars to Ottawa every April 30th. We need to tell our MPs (and Senators) that they are not entitled to spend our money without letting us know whether they are spending it wisely or not and that we need proof of their prudence.

As an aside, in the Question Period interview, Ms. Fraser also announced that she will be auditing the anticipated billion dollar expenditure on security for the G8/G20 Summits later in June. On the same show, Public Safely Minister Vic Toews stated that he would be pleased to have the expenditure audited (unfortunately, after the fact), but only time will tell if the Conservative government is co-operative or if they cook up some reason to keep the financial details secret.

Click HERE to read more of Glen Allen’s columns.

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