Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'Transparency' gains popularity in Ottawa

Trudeau, Rathgeber lead way on accountability

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OTTAWA -- The editorial cartoon Friday in the Halifax Chronicle Herald proposes the best way to clear a room in Ottawa.

In a sketch of a hallway in the Parliament Buildings, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is standing alone waving a piece of paper and calling, "Full disclosure of expenses! Who's with me?"

There is no other soul around. The joke, of course, is that when talk comes to accountability and transparency in Ottawa, it's hard to find an ally.

The two buzzwords are commonly uttered from the lips of politicians, but in repeated examples, walking the walk is a lot tougher.

The Conservative caucus last week even lost Alberta MP Brent Rathgeber after government MPs watered down his bill that would have shed more light on the salaries of highly paid civil servants. He said between that and the government's lack of openness on why Prime Minister Stephen Harper's chief of staff gave Sen. Mike Duffy $90,000 to pay back housing-expense claims, Rathgeber no longer recognized the party he joined.

"I have reluctantly come to the inescapable conclusion that the government's lack of support for my transparency bill is tantamount to a lack of support for transparency and open government generally," Rathgeber wrote on his website.

But it seems Rathgeber perhaps is not alone and Trudeau actually could be joined in that hallway as politicians scramble under the glare focused on the Senate expenses scandal.

Trudeau proposed last week that detailed quarterly reports be posted online on how individual MPs spend their office budgets. The Liberals, he said, would lead the way by doing so voluntarily, beginning in the fall.

He also wants performance audits of both the House of Commons and Senate every three years, and he wants the secretive Board of Internal Economy, the committee that oversees all House of Commons spending, opened to the public.

"Sunshine is the best disinfectant," Trudeau said, ironically standing under cloudy skies outside Centre Block.

Three years ago, the House of Commons almost unanimously opposed such an idea. The total of what each MP spends on staff, travel, hospitality and office expenses is posted annually, but there are no details. So, for example, one can go online and find out in 2011-12 Trudeau spent $50,060.03 on travel for himself or his designated travelling companion, but we don't know where he went, why, whether he flew first-class and how many of those trips he took himself.

Cabinet ministers must provide more details. So a quick online search discovers Public Safety Minister Vic Toews spent $8,332 to travel to Abu Dhabi and Jordan for five days in February, including $7,321.38 on airfare, $441.93 on accommodation, $461.14 on food and $100 on "other."

Access-to-information requests can often net more details, including copies of receipts for flights that detail first-class tickets or contents of restaurant meals. It's how former cabinet minister Bev Oda's $16 orange juice at a swanky London hotel got out, a pricey glass of vitamin C that ultimately led to her resignation last year.

But MPs have for years balked at suggestions they should follow suit.

When British MPs were under scrutiny for an expense scandal that saw some charging taxpayers for moat-cleaning and big-screen televisions, Canada's MPs held their heads high and refused to bend to provide more details of their own spending. They initially blocked a request by the auditor general to have a look at their books, although public pressure eventually allowed that to happen.

But still no details emerged, although auditor general Michael Ferguson said he didn't find much of concern.

MPs balked at the idea of providing more details, fearing it would be used against them for partisan purposes.

They could be right -- in fact, they likely are -- but with four senators under fire for improperly claiming expenses for housing, travel and daily per diems, and Canadians clearly outraged, it seems there has been a change of heart.

Treasury Board President Tony Clement jumped on Trudeau's idea.

"We are absolutely in favour of any measure that would have the same kind of expenses accountability that currently exists for ministers to be expanded to all MPs," he said.

The outcome of the Senate issue still has to play out, but if the main consequence is that Canadians as a whole get far more detail about how our elected and unelected representatives are spending our money, then at least we will have made some progress.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 10, 2013 A6

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