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Parliament must put expenses online

Voters deserve to see details of $540-M bill

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THE current controversy over the misdeeds of sitting senators has sparked a debate about whether we need an elected Senate, or any Senate at all.

Don’t take the bait. This is public policy’s version of threecard monte, a sleight of hand designed to divert attention away from the real issue.

That is not to say this isn’t a fantastic diversion. The scandals rocking the upper house are just so juicy, it’s tough to ignore them.

Senators Patrick Brazeau, Pamela Wallin, Mac Harb and Mike Duffy have been accused of claiming expenses for a secondary residence in the National Capital Region without having a primary residence elsewhere. Brazeau added more fuel to the fire when he was charged with assault and sexual assault. And Wallin is also facing questions about six-figure travel expenses that defy explanation.

Headlines across the country ask with rhetorical flair whether it’s time to seriously consider reforming or abolishing the Senate. But is that the real issue at stake here?

For example, Wallin is not under attack for her performance in the Senate, but rather for spending $13,000 per month on travel with no explanation. The heat increased when the Senate, while acknowledging an outside audit of Wallin’s expenses was being performed, refused to say where the senator travelled and why.

Groups such as the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and Democracy Watch have not taken the head fake. While many of us chase our tails in a Senate debate, they have been sounding the alarm about how little we citizens know about how federal politicians spend money.

It’s not a new issue; federal auditors general have been fighting with Parliament for specific details of how parliamentarians spend the estimated $540 million a year provided for living expenses, travel, hospitality and the costs of staffing their offices. The CTF and Democracy Watch have gone further, demanding to see individual receipts; currently, Parliament only makes available total expense spending in certain broad categories.

The board of internal economy, an all-party committee that oversees and controls the expenditures that support operation of the House of Commons, for many years refused former auditor general Sheila Fraser’s bid to audit politicians’ expenses. Her successor, Michael Ferguson, was just last year granted access to Parliament’s books, and his findings serve as an important reminder about why this kind of access is essential to democracy.

In a report released in June 2012, Ferguson did not find much in the way of individual expense misconduct. However, he only did test audits of randomly selected claims by MPs and senators. Ferguson discovered a lack of due diligence and documentation in the awarding of more than $60 million in contracts for goods and services. Of 59 purchases examined, worth $15 million, 41 were not properly awarded or documented.

Ferguson’s work was illuminating, but it does not completely scratch this itch. We still do not have complete access to the finer details of MP and senator expenses.

The CTF has called for "the gold standard" for accountability and transparency, which would mean complete publication of all expense receipts, online. England adopted this standard following a long and painful scandal involving numerous examples of fraud and abuse of funds. In Canada, only a handful of municipalities and Alberta meet this standard.

What would prevent Ottawa from doing the same? The Conservative government, which in opposition talked a good game about increasing transparency and accountability, is less fond of both concepts now that it is in power. However, all parties have, to some extent, opposed greater transparency.

MPs and senators are afraid of fully disclosing specific details of how they spend our money because, in the hands of an organization such as the CTF, that information can only lead to (at the least) embarrassment, or (at most) a change in career. They believe innocuous expenses will be used for "gotcha" attacks that will ultimately undermine their support. And to be fair, that’s a legitimate concern.

As much as CTF has been eloquent in setting the gold standard, there is no doubt it wants access to politicians’ expenses for convenient attacks on individual politicians. The CTF, and groups like it, preach transparency but practise character assassination. It is that knowledge that has politicians of all stripes clinging to the status quo.

The solution is simple, but it is not easy. Ottawa needs to open up its books and make the details available online. Politicians need to ride out the annual storm of controversy generated by the CTFs of the world, and cling to the knowledge they will, ultimately, benefit from doing the right thing. The Wallin controversy is a good case in point. Is the current controversy fuelled by concern about how much money she spent on travel, or because the Senate refused to tell us why she travelled and where she went?

Let’s talk about Senate reform when that is the main issue on the table. But let’s not use it as a card trick to conceal the meatier issue.

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