Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

MPs shun public scrutiny of themselves

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With less than five clicks of my mouse I can tell you that between Dec. 2, 2009 and March 1, 2010, Manitoba regional minister Vic Toews spent $764.51 entertaining guests and $12,878.62 on travel. The latter includes a $3,601.87 airfare to Vancouver and $6,971.63 for a six-day trip to Jordan and Israel in January.

The entertaining guests includes $48.03 for a "working breakfast" at the Pancake House in Winnipeg Jan. 15 and $161.40 for a "working lunch" with four government employees to discuss public safety issues" at Hy’s in Ottawa on Jan. 19. Earlier that day he became the new public safety minister.

However, I cannot tell you at all how he spent $75,413 on travel as the MP for Provencher in 2008-09. Nor can one get an explanation for how Conservative MP Rod Bruinooge spent $14,505 on phones that year, what office supplies NDP MP Pat Martin bought for $5,100 or how many staff Anita Neville paid with $223,597.

I pick out those examples not because any of those expenses raise any particular red flags. But because there is such a glaring discrepancy between the public information cabinet ministers must provide and this ridiculous secrecy MPs from all political parties insist on keeping on their own expenses.

There is a showdown between the House of Commons and Canada’s auditor general, Sheila Fraser, over MP expenses. Each year the Speaker’s office and the Board of Economy (that incredibly boring and bureaucratic name for the group of MPs which oversee parliament’s operations and budget) release a report with the total amount each MP expensed to the taxpayer in a number of different categories, including constituency expenses and Ottawa office expenses. But the breakdown of what those totals went to is kept private.

It means for example, that amid the whole ten percenter debate, nobody could figure out which MPs were spending what on 10 percenters because the costs are included in the "printing" category that includes flyers MPs send within their own riding as well. One can expect the MPs whose printing costs were at the top of the lists likely sent out more 10 percenters than those who expensed the least for printing, but that is an assumption not a fact.

There are limits on what MPs can expense, rules for how many trips they can expense, etc. But don’t taxpayers deserve to know how money is being spent? That seems to be the mantra for everything in Ottawa except MPs themselves.

MPs from all parties just don’t want Fraser getting to probe their expenses deeper. The board of economy – which is made up of MPs from all parties – is a good enough check and balance say the parties. The auditor has asked if she can get a look but in an oddly secretive turn of events, Parliament can actually deny her that request. And it has.

There are so many recent examples of questionable political expenses (moat cleaning and mortgages for vacation homes in Britain, household furniture and electronics in Nova Scotia, red flags about the lack of proper documentation by Manitoba MLAs) that refusing to make the information even available to the auditor just seems like MPs have something to hide.

Like the Canadian MPS are doing now, the British politicians put up a long fight against making their expense claims public and we now know why.

It is entirely possible that the checks and balances in place on MP expenses are adequate and there are no abuses. But I’m willing to bet six months ago Manitoba MLAs would have said the same thing. At least one MP has suggested the reason the expenses shouldn’t be released publicly is because the media will be looking to turn it into a scandal.

If there are any MPs charging the government for moat cleaning or LCD television sets, then yes, the media likely will pounce. But if there isn’t anything to hide, MPs have nothing to fear.

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About Mia Rabson

Mia Rabson is a born and bred Winnipegger whose interest in politics seemed clear when she dressed up as Prime Minister Brian Mulroney for Halloween in the 7th grade.

Her interest in writing was no surprise to her parents, who learned early in Mia’s life that no piece of blank paper — or wall, for that matter — was safe in her hands.

She holds an honours BA in English from Queen’s University, a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario, and has completed a political journalism fellowship in Washington, D.C. with the Washington Centre for Politics and Journalism.

Prior to working for the Winnipeg Free Press, Mia briefly worked for the Detroit News in the paper’s Washington bureau.

Mia joined the Free Press team in February 2001, and in April 2001 was appointed to the Manitoba legislature bureau. In December 2004, she was appointed bureau chief at the legislature. She became the newspaper’s parliamentary bureau chief/national reporter in Ottawa in January 2008.

In 2008 she was nominated for a Michener Award with a team of reporters from the Free Press for its coverage of the province’s child welfare system.

She counts reliving the invasion at Dieppe, France, with veterans of the failed Second World War expedition and overcoming her fear of heights to touch the Golden Boy statue atop the Legislative Building among her favourite experiences as a reporter.

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