Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Disclosing MP accounts a first step

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Liberal members of Parliament and senators will start to post their office and travel expenses online this month. If you're interested in these things, you'll be able to see how your MP (if you're in a Liberal-held riding) spent your money on plane tickets, hotels and meals. It's such a sensible thing to do it's surprising -- as well as disappointing -- it's not already routine for all parliamentarians.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau made the announcement last week, and challenged his political rivals to join in. He called it the "first step of what I hope will be a cascade of transparency and openness as the other parties try to outdo each other." He said he would "love to see a competition in this, to try and see which party can truly be most transparent to Canadians."

You'd think, or at least hope, the other parties would support this excellent idea. After the embarrassing fiasco of runaway Senate expenses, parliamentarians must know Canadians want openness on these matters and have no tolerance for wasteful spending.

Of course, you'd be wrong. Conservatives and New Democrats alike, while rushing to endorse the principle of openness and accountability in politicians' expenses, came up with all kinds of reasons not to follow Trudeau's example. Nathan Cullen, one of the NDP's representatives on the House of Commons board of internal economy, the all-party committee that has jurisdiction over these matters, dismissed the Liberal plan as a "stunt."

If so, may we please have more stunts like this? It's obvious Trudeau sees political gain in having his followers publicly disclose details of their spending, but that doesn't detract from the merit of the idea. We should know what our representatives spent, and how, no matter what party they belong to.

Trudeau's critics point out, quite rightly, his plan is far from perfect. Since it amounts to self-disclosure, there will be no way to know whether an MP or senator has posted everything or included details that might prove embarrassing. "It's still a trust-me exercise," Cullen pointed out in an interview with CBC Radio.

Just as important, it won't be a standardized system that voters and the media can use to compare one politician fairly to others.

There are many reasons why an MP may spend more than another. Their expense budgets vary depending on how many voters are in their ridings, and someone representing 30,000 people in Prince Edward Island will obviously spend less than the MP for a Greater Toronto Area riding with more than 150,000.

The MP for Yukon, who must fly great distances just to stay in touch with voters and commute to Ottawa, will spend much more than a member in an urban riding near the capital.

What's needed is a system that takes these differences into account and makes them immediately clear to the public and media. Politicians should know we are watching how they spend, but they should not fear unfair comparisons with others.

The Conservative government promised full disclosure of expenses when it was first elected. Both opposition parties support the idea. All of them need to stop finding excuses not to act and agree on a compulsory, standardized system that can be implemented at reasonable cost. It must be overseen by an independent authority such as the auditor general.

Trudeau has done voters a service by pulling his "stunt" and forcing the issue. He is also doing the politicians, or at least the great majority of them, a favour as well if only they knew it.

There is little evidence of significant misspending among MPs (as opposed to some senators) and they can only benefit by demonstrating openness. It's a move that is long overdue.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 1, 2013 A9

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