In today's Toronto Star we learn about a culture of secrecy in Otttawa about spending by MPs that shatters any doubt about the self serving nature of our paid elected representatives.
How would you ever expect a politician holding and practising such values to care a wit about revealing the truth behind 18 pages of blacked out documents that caused Canadians to lose $35 billion, when these very same people are going to absurd lengths to hide their own spending of taxpayers’ money. This is wholly unacceptable, and yet standard operating procedure in self-serving Ottawa. Two word description: Public disgrace
Our MPs' spending secrets
Marlene Jennings, the MP for Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine, was one of only four parliamentarians who agreed to release her expense records.
How MP expenses are the most closely guarded secret on Parliament Hill.
Canada's 308 members of Parliament claim almost $128 million a year in personal and office expenses – spending that's risen 42% since 2000. But when the Star asked where the money was going, almost everyone refused to talk
Jun 20, 2009 04:30 AM
June 20, 2009
OTTAWA – Eleven dollars and 45 cents for computer mouse pads, telephone equipment worth $13, a $15 rug and a $10,203 bill to move an MP's Parliament Hill office 37 steps, from one side of a stairwell to the other.
That is about all that's known of the almost $128 million in expenses claimed by federal politicians in the last fiscal year.
The rest of it – the mundane, the understandable and the exorbitant – may never be revealed thanks to a culture of secrecy on Parliament Hill that appears to have bled across partisan lines.
Twenty cabinet ministers and backbenchers resigned or will retire in Britain after a newspaper was handed a computer disc containing expense claims on everything from a moat-cleaning service to the rental of a dirty movie. A heavily censored version of all British MPs' expenses for the past three years was released on a parliamentary website this week and Scotland Yard launched a criminal investigation into some claims yesterday.
The House of Representatives in Washington now plans to post members' expenses online each quarter, and similar pre-emptive plans are developing in New Zealand.
But nothing of that sort is likely to bring more transparency to Ottawa. In Canada, you can see how much of your money your MP has spent – an annual tally comes out each fall – but you have no right to learn how they spent it.
Of the 37 MPs contacted in the past several weeks, just four agreed to disclose the detailed information on specific expenses requested by the Toronto Star. A vast number simply ignored the appeal.
Then scripted responses began streaming in from politicians of all parties in the House of Commons.
"I would remind you that for expenses to be approved, receipts need to be submitted to the House of Commons," said Zachary Healy, a Conservative party spokesman. "Receipts have been provided for all expenses, and they have been disclosed according to the rules currently in place," said Karl Bélanger, the senior press secretary to NDP Leader Jack Layton.
"If an expense does not meet the guidelines ... it is refused," said an aide to Liberal MP Glen Pearson.
Even the Bloc Québécois, which said weeks ago that it had no fear of opening its expense claims for a look-see by the auditor general, dismissed requests for assistance and transparency.
"Alors bonne chance," said Karyne Duplessis Piché, media relations officer for the Bloc caucus.
A secretive and powerful committee of eight MPs – four each from the government and the opposition – keeps watch over their colleagues' bills.
The Board of Internal Economy meets every few weeks behind closed doors to decide how a portion of taxpayers' money is spent running the House of Commons and compensating elected officials.
On March 9, they agreed to cover the legal expenses for six lawsuits brought against MPs for defamation, libel and employment disputes. They approved an out-of-court settlement to clear up another case involving an unnamed politician. The only public record of the payout is two lines in an obscure summary of the meeting.
The board won't say who's being sued, what prompted the lawsuit or how much the legal defences are costing taxpayers.
"At some point here there has to be some capacity to treat members in some confidence," said board spokesman Mauril Bélanger, the Liberal MP for Ottawa-Vanier. "These are such matters."
It's much the same for expenses, though there is a list of rules to separate the legitimate claims from the frivolous. There are also audits and all-party oversight of the money.
Bélanger even appeared to take offence at suggestions the expense system was something less than fully transparent.
"Are you suggesting there are scandals in the House of Commons?" the veteran MP asked. "I'm suggesting there aren't any ... I would argue, sir, that the level of scrutiny that is currently applied ensures that things that may have happened elsewhere are not happening here."
Don Boudria, a Liberal MP from 1984 to 2006 who also sat on the board, said federal politicians need discretion to manage staff salaries, office rentals and other purchases that make representing a constituency "like a miniature business."
But the checks and balances on MPs' expenses make Canada "a model that could be emulated in other countries," he added.
For now, Canadians have to trust that this is true. If someone objected to a decision made by the board, or even the secrecy surrounding how those decisions are made, there's not much they can do about it. The board has the final say on all of these matters – the judge, jury and court of appeal.
"They always say that the board meets in secret. Well, the boards of directors of most corporations meet privately also," said John Reynolds, a former Conservative MP who sat on the board for six years before he left politics ahead of the 2006 federal election.
"You can't run corporations that have public board meetings and the public attending your board meeting because you're talking about staff, you're talking about people."
Here's how the MPs' spending breaks down:
All expenses for the country's 308 MPs totalled $127,850,218 for the year ended March 31, 2008. That represents a jump of almost 42 per cent since the 2000-01 fiscal year, when 301 MPs spent $90,174,779.
The claims cover a politician's riding office, where there is an allotted amount that MPs can bill for expenses, staff, travel, advertising and building rental.
A second grouping of expenses covers goods and services provided by the Commons for an MP's Parliament Hill office, including telephone, printing, office supplies and a $5,000 fund for furniture and equipment improvement.
The different budget allotments are strictly administered, meaning MPs cannot use money set aside for travel between Ottawa and their constituency to buy fancy suits, Boudria said.
"You can't do that even if you didn't travel all year ... You'd send it in and it would be sent back."
The Star sought a detailed list of the $707,135 in expenses for services provided by the House of Commons labelled in annual disclosure statements as "Other."
That category provides MPs the widest latitude in spending and provides the greatest variance on spending.
In the 2007-08 fiscal year, the amounts billed ranged from $2 for Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe, to $2,418 for Brampton Liberal MP Ruby Dhalla, to $17,910 for Helena Guergis, the Tory from Simcoe-Grey, to $314,542 for Winnipeg Conservative Steven Fletcher, who is paraplegic.
A few days after a reporter first placed telephone calls to a number of politicians, Liberal MPs alerted their whip, the person who makes sure all party members are operating in unison. The whip, Cape Breton MP Rodger Cuzner, promptly called the Star seeking more details about the request.
Cuzner said the rules surrounding expenses are one of the first things newly elected members are taught upon arrival in Ottawa.
To prove there are checks in place, he admitted that several of his own past expense claims have been denied or deemed improper.
Bélanger also said he had an advertising expense rejected because he had not included his constituency contact information in the publication. And as recently as March 26, the board rejected the claims of an MP who tried to expense child-care bills, according to a summary of the meeting.
Cuzner insisted that Liberals have nothing to hide, but added: "My reservation would be for individual MPs making their claims public when not everyone's is public."
He promised to "give it some thought" and try to find a way to help, but he never called back.
Only four MPs, all Liberals – Peter Milliken from Kingston, who is the Commons Speaker and the chair of the Board of Internal Economy, Jim Karygiannis, who represents the Toronto riding of Scarborough-Agincourt, former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion and Marlene Jennings from Montreal – agreed to release a breakdown of their expenses.
Milliken claimed the mouse pads and rental of an office water cooler at a cost of $176. Karygiannis billed for a $13 telephone cord. Dion claimed a $15 carpet during his brief stint as party leader.
Jennings was billed $3,404.30 by the House of Commons to physically move her Ottawa office 37 steps down the hall into an office vacated by former Toronto Liberal MP Bill Graham in early 2008. It cost $5,662.33 to paint the office and upholster two sofas, $836.44 for office repairs and $299.99 in information technology charges.
All the work was performed by government staff and the used furniture in her office was provided by the House of Commons, which automatically gives each item a monetary value, Jennings said.
The possible reasons MPs weren't more forthcoming are quite simple, according to a number of current and former officials.
First, there's no rule demanding that they do so. The bylaws state that only an MP or the board can authorize such a disclosure.
It's also nobody's business, said Reynolds, who retired from elected office in 2006 and now works in Vancouver as a strategic consultant with the Lang Michener law firm.
Making individual expense claims public, something already required of cabinet ministers and senior bureaucrats, only feeds a scandal-obsessed media, he said.
"I don't think it's important that somebody knows what somebody eats for their supper. It then becomes a story. So-and-so eats a steak and somebody else lives on a hamburger. ... There are people who like that stuff and that's why the National Enquirer sells so well."
But as with most bodies that conduct themselves far from public scrutiny, Bélanger said the board could decide at any time to shine more light on the hidden millions. Problems coming to light or scandals such as the one that continues to unfold in Britain could speed up that process. But then again, maybe not.
"Things have evolved over the past. I can't see why they wouldn't necessarily evolve over the future as well," Bélanger said.
"In what shape and at what rate? I can't predict that, but I can see things changing."
Saturday, June 20, 2009
Posted by Fillibluster at 9:14 AM