Lid on expenses makes our bad politics worse


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Here's the situation. We're suffering through an era of unprecedented ambivalence about politics and politicians. There is a malaise about the moral and ethical sins of our elected officials, and this is manifesting in lower voter turnout and electoral gridlock.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/05/2010 (4760 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Here’s the situation. We’re suffering through an era of unprecedented ambivalence about politics and politicians. There is a malaise about the moral and ethical sins of our elected officials, and this is manifesting in lower voter turnout and electoral gridlock.

Faced with this great cynicism, how do our federal members of Parliament respond? They refuse to allow auditor general Sheila Fraser to examine the intimate details of how they spend $500 million in expenses.

That is a pretty gutsy stand given the trouble elected officials all over the world have bought for themselves by first trying to keep the public from seeing how they spent expense money, and then second, once the public got to see how they spent that money, having to explain the things on which they spent it.

The MPs’ expense flap in the United Kingdom is perhaps the best example of just how volatile this issue can become. After the members refused to release details of their expenses, those details began to leak into the public domain. The ensuing controversy has forever damaged the reputation of politicians in general.

Undeterred by this example, the Board of Internal Economy, the all-party committee that oversees the expenses of Canadian members of Parliament, declined to allow Fraser to see its books. The BIE claimed Fraser did not have jurisdiction, but when reporters tried to get more information on that rather creative excuse, neither of the two designated spokesmen was available for comment.

Others MPs who were not the official spokespeople, including New Democrat Libby Davies, explained MPs weren’t refusing Fraser, per se. It simply isn’t necessary for the auditor general to examine MPs’ expenses, she said, because there are already enough checks and balances. "The controls that we have here in the federal Parliament ensure that there are strict procedures, rules and audit," Davies said.

The MPs must know if there isn’t anything scandalous in the fine details of their expenses, then there isn’t really any threat from allowing Fraser to do her thing. What, then, is the hang-up?

MPs know there is an inherent arbitrariness to the work of the auditor general. When Fraser opens a set of books, chances are she, like all auditors, will find something. It is the nature of audits and complex organization that it is virtually impossible to ensure that every penny is counted, and counted in the most appropriate way.

The MPs are also aware this arbitrariness has sparked a few scandals that, after deeper scrutiny, turned out to be pretty mundane. Consider the now-infamous Billion-Dollar Boondoggle, a tempest in a teapot from the mid-1990s sparked in part by a Fraser audit.

Fraser reported the then-Liberal government did not have enough controls in place to oversee $1 billion in job grants. The opposition determined this was evidence the money was spent inappropriately.

It wasn’t until tens of millions of additional taxpayer dollars were spent drilling deeper into the issue that it was determined that despite the lack of oversight, the money got where it was supposed to go. Not surprisingly, this didn’t stop the opposition from using the term Billion-Dollar Boondoggle. Sometimes the truth just isn’t as interesting as the lie.

However, fear of arbitrariness is hardly a good excuse for what MPs are doing now.

Conditions in the current political economy have never been so troubling. Canadians are not only unable to find a party worthy of majority support, they appear to be disinterested in the entire subject. We are now among the most disaffected voters in the world.

We all watched recently as Great Britain struggled with a hung Parliament, the result of an election that ousted the ruling Labour Party but did not return enough Conservative MPs to form a majority.

With an urgency that is missing from politics here, the Conservatives quickly formed a coalition with the third-place Liberal Democrats. Although it’s unclear whether the coalition will survive, it was pleasurable to watch a country fully engaged in a political debate.

The refusal of Canadian MPs to allow a more robust examination of their expenses may seem oddly appropriate, given the way Parliament has in general become less accountable and transparent. But it also reinforces the worst fears we have of elected officials, a reminder of why fewer of us vote, and those who do have no idea whom to trust with levers of power.

Fractured and rotten with salacious hyperbole, Canada’s current Parliament is broken. By refusing to allow the auditor general to scrutinize their expenses, the great fear now is that MPs no longer want it fixed.

Dan Lett

Dan Lett

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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