OTTAWA -- The refusal of Conservative riding associations to explain how they spend millions in taxpayer-subsidized cash raises suspicions they're putting the money to questionable uses, Liberal deputy leader Ralph Goodale says.
Goodale said he can't fathom how Tory riding associations have racked up eye-popping expenses, such as the nearly $70,000 in "travel and hospitality" reported by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's Whitby-Oshawa riding association last year.
"That's astounding, that's breathtaking," the veteran Liberal MP said in an interview.
"It just doesn't smell right."
Ditto with respect to newly minted Labour Minister Kellie Leitch's Simcoe Grey riding association, which reported just over $65,000 in "other" expenses without providing any details.
"Any riding with a miscellaneous number that's that large, that's more than the total bank accounts of a great many ridings," Goodale noted.
'Any riding with a miscellaneous number that's that large, that's more than the total bank accounts of a great many ridings'
He was responding to an analysis by The Canadian Press of 2012 financial reports filed recently by federal parties' riding associations with Elections Canada.
With some late reports still straggling in, the analysis found Conservative associations are by far the wealthiest, sitting on combined surpluses of just over $18 million. Liberal associations reported combined assets of $6.3 million and the NDP's assets totalled $2.3 million.
In all, riding associations for all federal parties ended the year with combined war chests worth nearly $30 million, with little obligation to account publicly for how the money is spent.
Since 2004, associations that wish to issue tax receipts for donations must register with Elections Canada and file annual financial reports, which include the names of donors and the amounts they contribute, as well as summaries of how much money was spent.
They report tens of thousands of dollars spent on things such as "professional services," "office expenses," "fundraising activities," "polling and research" or just "other" -- with no detailed explanations. They do not supply receipts to Elections Canada, which thus has no way to verify whether the money was spent to stage a community-outreach event or pay for the local MP's wardrobe, new car or family vacations.
The Liberal party supplied contact information for some of its bigger-spending riding associations, which offered relatively detailed explanations of how they spent the money.
But The Canadian Press did not receive any response to repeated requests for explanations from some of the biggest-spending Conservative associations, including Flaherty's and Leitch's.
"This cloak of secrecy just stokes suspicion," said Goodale, adding that it "smells of a coverup."
"Riding associations should be prepared to answer legitimate questions from the public about what that (spending) was for."
NDP national director Nathan Rotman couldn't imagine how a riding association could rack up a $70,000 travel and hospitality tab or $65,000 in other expenses.
"In my time working in riding associations and being field director here, I would have a hard time figuring out how to spend that much money ... It certainly makes you wonder what they're doing with that amount of money," he said.
Pierre Poilievre, the newly appointed minister of state for democratic reform, said he's open to proposals for increasing transparency.
"We're prepared to look at all ideas on how to improve the system," he said Friday after a ceremony to honour a Korean War veteran in his Ottawa riding.
"I'll be meeting with members of all parties and others who have ideas on improving transparency and democracy and hopefully come up with some good proposals."
Poilievre, whose Nepean-Carleton Conservative association is the eleventh wealthiest in the country, with net assets of $202,181, could not say what accounted for the $10,000 it reported in "other" expenses last year. "I'll have to go and check. I don't have that filing in front of me right now."
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has made transparency a hallmark of his leadership. During last spring's Liberal leadership contest, he voluntarily disclosed all his sources of income, including his inheritance from his late father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, and more than $1 million in public-speaking fees, some of it earned after being elected as an MP in 2008.
He's promised that all Liberal MPs will begin voluntarily posting their expenses online this fall.
Goodale said the Liberals also "want to play a strong role in leading the way" on transparency when it comes to riding associations and political parties, which similarly aren't required to provide receipts to Elections Canada to account for the money they spend.
He suggested the law could be amended to require a greater level of detail in annual financial reports and the provision of receipts.
-- The Canadian Press