Memo to MPs: your public wants to know

MPs are either exploiting their staff and then paying them off, or being shaken down by the Hill’s grifters?


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Michael Ignatieff used money from his office budget to have a stone wall rebuilt at his family estate in the south of France. Stephen Harper charged hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of musty hockey memorabilia to his expense account. And Jack Layton? Let’s just say Canadians would be shocked at how much it is costing them to keep his moustache trimmed and waxed.

Well, we don’t know for a fact that all of this is true. But at the same time, we don’t know that it isn’t true. And given the parliamentary expense scandal in Britain last year along with the one currently brewing in Nova Scotia, and given what we do know about secret accounts and their relationship to human nature, a healthy serving of cynicism is probably warranted. Which is why it is completely bizarre that the Board of Internal Economy, the body that is responsible for the finances and administration of the Canadian House of Commons, last week refused a request from Auditor General Sheila Fraser to conduct the first “performance audit” of MPs’ expenses in almost 20 years.

Actually, it is not just the MPs’ expenses that are secret, but the board’s deliberations as well. So not only did it turn down the AG’s request to look at its books, but the board’s spokespeople also declined to speak to the press or to explain to Canadians precisely why they didn’t see the need to make their expenses public. As a result, Canadians were treated to the curious sight of watching a number of highly visible MPs, most of whom have never met a microphone they didn’t want to kiss, scurrying from reporters like cockroaches caught under a heat lamp.

Yet Ottawa abhors a consensus, especially a secret one, and soon enough a handful of rogue parliamentarians stepped forward to explain why Sheila Fraser ought to mind her own business. NDP MP Joe Comartin told the Hill Times the Commons already had performance audits. They are called elections, and if the public didn’t like it they were welcome to vote accordingly. Liberal MP Paul Szabo said that he would happily discuss his expenses with any constituent who was interested, but felt inclined to add, “They’re not interested.”

It is hard to understand just why MPs are being so stubborn about this. The most charitable interpretation of what our parliamentarians are up to is that they are standing on principle. A less generous view: Canadians have been hearing a lot lately about parliamentary supremacy and the ancient privileges of the Commons, as the opposition has asserted its right to see the Afghan detainees documents. It may just be that, having got its first taste of real power in decades, Parliament has decided to jealously protect its privileges, including the one that gives our MPs the collective right to regulate their internal affairs and keep their own accounts.

This, of course, would be a serious strategic mistake. The whole point of parliamentary privilege is that it carves out the special rights MPs must have, because without them they could not discharge their duties in holding the government to account. It is hard to see how letting the auditor general take a look at their expenses infringes on that essential function. It is massively hypocritical of MPs to insist on keeping their own documents out of the public eye, after having spent most of the past six months using that very same parliamentary privilege to demand greater access to someone else’s. What a foolish and needless sacrifice of the public respect and goodwill they have earned by standing up to the government.

Unless, of course, there’s something else going on. The only remaining explanation is they really do have something to hide. There’s probably nothing much to match, for glorious tack, the publicly funded moat-cleanings that marked the British scandal, and one can only hope our MPs have never stooped to treating a porn habit as a line item on their office budget. But the truth may be something far more Canadian, and in many ways far more outrageous—at least if the other excuse served up by Szabo is remotely accurate.

As Szabo explained to one news agency, parliamentarians are subject to a large number of lawsuits for offences such as wrongful dismissal and sexual harassment. He said that a big chunk of the board’s budget goes to paying legal fees, and that if the facts of these suits were ever made public, careers could be ruined.

Even by the usual empty-headed standards we’ve grown used to in our elected representatives, this is a fantastically brainless excuse. Either MPs are routinely exploiting their staff and then paying them off when they complain, or they are being routinely shaken down by the hordes of grifters and opportunists who staff Parliament Hill. In either case, it is scandalous that the public would be kept unaware of this. Not to mention the fact that making it public would go a long way to solving the problem, since it is precisely the hush-hush nature of the process that makes the scandal possible.

Our members of Parliament have to know that the public is not with them on this. A poll conducted earlier this month by Leger Marketing and released last week suggests that 88 per cent of Canadians wanted those expense accounts made public. Szabo is dead wrong—Canadians are very interested in what MPs are doing with the $540 million they spend on themselves each year.

And that’s the funny thing about privileges. Unlike rights, which are unalienable, privileges have a way of getting taken away when they are abused.

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Memo to MPs: your public wants to know

  1. Open your books, MPs! 88% of your constituents want transparency.

  2. This just shows how hypocritical MP's are. Freedom of information? They fought and pilloried our military for not releasing sensitive information and yet their expenses are considered more sacred than National/Multinational Security Information? NDP's, and Liberals hollier than thou attitude is really showing. All of them should have their books open.

    • you forgot to add, "NDP's, and Liberals (AND CONSERVATIVES) hollier than thou attitude is really showing…"
      Remember, all MP's are in this together, except for the Bloc apparently.

  3. If MPs are worried about court cases coming to light via a Fraser audit, of being sued by employees for wrongful dismissal, sexual harassment, & the like, I thought the courts, being public institutions, would have their records easily available for public scrutiny. I approve of Ms. Fraser finding out who’s getting sued & how much $ taxpayers are paying to subsidize MP’s lawyers – but couldn’t the news media also uncover such cases by studying court records, and tell us about them – if not how much the lawyer costs are?

    If some MP or other has a history of repeatedly being sued for sexual harassment, shouldn’t voters be privy to this info? And shouldn’t such an MPs own party be concerned about such a pattern?

    • Hermesacat wrote, "If some MP or other has a history of repeatedly being sued for sexual harassment, shouldn't voters be privy to this info? And shouldn't such an MPs own party be concerned about such a pattern? "

      Exactly! An MP has no right to use taxpayers' money because of some personal need , whatever it may be.
      We can't get the taxpayer to pay for indiscretions. Why should they? And we need to know if their personal affairs are having enough negative impact as to affect their public service so that we may judge whether to support them in the future.
      Pay them higher but do not give them an expense account.

  4. My guess is that most of them have nothing to hide, but would prefer to avoid the extra trouble inevitably posed by scrutiny and possible criticism.

    Nonetheless, it's not their money. They owe us an account, trouble be damned.

    Trust, but verify. Open the books and post everything on the web.

  5. Much of this incites humour. But the two points that deeply irritate me are:

    Mr. Comartin: the Commons already had performance audits. They are called elections, and if the public didn't like it they were welcome to vote accordingly.
    Mr. Szabo: parliamentarians are subject to a large number of lawsuits … careers could be ruined.

    How can I decide to vote someone out of office when a set of facts is kept from me. If my MP is disproportionately spending large amounts of money on unnecessary items and/or being sued for harassment/wrongful dismissal on a frequent basis, the information would form a part of my voting decision.

    I do not belong to a party, I have no control at all in the selection process of the candidates in my riding. Candidates all spout the party platform during elections so the non-partisan voter has no basis on which to judge or form individual preferences. So I vote for the party platform with which I mostly agree, or against another party's platform, or against a party that has ticked me off — none of which has anything to do with my local candidate(s) because I know nothing about them as individuals (they can't vote as individuals if they are elected, and what opinions they express in caucus, what they fight for within the Party is also not available to me.) . Meaning? Official investigation and published reports could be an important part of the decision process.

  6. I believe Mr.Potter should be shot with a barrel of his own B$ for starting rumors in a major Canadian magazine about this country's leadership.

    • Please tell us you're joking. If you are, poor delivery.

  7. Is this what that much-lauded bipartisanship looks like in the real world? Personally, I get a little nervous at the idea of all the major national parties agreeing on any issue so tightly.

    MPs must know that these books will be opened up to the public eventually, and the media is frothing at the mouth in anticipation more and more each passing day.

    If a publically traded mega-corporation with expenses of over half a billion dollars per year refused to make its books open to shareholders, these self-righteous MPs would be holding a public inquiry to ge to the bottom of it and would all be hogging camera tripping over themselves to time to decry big business. They'd be vowing to change laws and regulations to ensure more accountability (as if they have any credibility in this area) from business.

    What a joke… maybe we should not pay taxes for the upcoming year and wait for the CRA to audit our books, at which point we'll say something along the lines of, "You can't. There's stuff in there I don't want you to see."

    Seems to work for our parliamentarians.

  8. If information on MPs' expense accounts were to be made public, this information could get into the hands of the Taliban which could then affect Canadian military operations in Afghanistan. Canadians must support our soldiers. No to MPs' expense accounts being made public. Redacted information might be acceptable.

  9. This is not the sort of issue one wants to be seen opposing publicly. Nothing says "I'm corrupt" like saying "Don't look at my books"

  10. When parliamentarians nearly universally agree on something then we the governed voters have something to be concerned about.
    Emergency measures for public safety create bigger rifts in parliament then the secrets of pocket change spending.

  11. Well said Potter. I'm glad Coyne pushed this issue on the CBC the other day– I couldn't beleive how weaselly Gregg sounded in defending MPs secrecy– Coyne's "good evening Senator" to him after that made me laugh out loud! Members of the press: do not give up on this issue! Make them open their damned books, because if they're so scared to then who knows what they've been up to since the last audit 20 years ago.

  12. Is the argument so weak for releasing more MP spending details that Andrew Potter needs to slander Canada's duly elected leaders with made up facts? He then flippantly justifies his slander in this major Canadian journal with "Well, we don't know for a fact that all of this is true. But at the same time, we don't know that it isn't true". Andrew Potter, you have been irresponsible with your pen and your editor has been negligent in letting this be published. What happened to Macleans' journalism standards? This petty and backhanded slanderous article actually makes the MP resistors argument that journalists will pile on to the minute details to create sensational. Yes, yes they will and Andrew Potter will lead the charge; facts optional.

  13. Show us the books now, if you got nothing to hide don't worry about it,other wise, SHOW US THE BOOKS NOW.

  14. 'Journalists' like this guy should go get real jobs if all they can manage is fantasizing about MP's. Yes attacking the government is great fun but there's more important stuff out there.

    • Actually he has a real job. That would be helping taxpayers protect their interests. Those of us that work for a living want to know where those that don't are spending our money.

  15. Here we have a fine example of normal citizens exposing their ignorance. The major flaw of democrary is that these people are allowed to vote. Let's see, how to describe sex to an eight-year-old. . . .

    Believe it or not, little children, wealthy and powerful men get hit on about 10 times a day. Yes, little girl, even men in their 50s and 60s, so long as they have enough money and power. Usually, gold-diggers (a polite euphemism for such women and the occasionally male) can be safely ignored. However, sometimes (about once a week), they can become obnoxious. When a wealthy and powerful man works for a corporation, he can count on trust and support from his board or senior executives, and the female is nothing more than an irritant.

  16. However, in public life, that is not the case. A female can destroy a politician's reputation and public career with just an accusation, and all females in the Western world know that. Since gold-diggers (substitute your own word) nearly always want nothing but money, the most practical way to get rid of them is to give them some to go away. Believe or not, little girl, this method of disposing of a female pest almost always works. Wealthy and powerful men simply need to give them enough money, that's all.

    Now look at the other side of the coin. No one can prove a negative, and a male can never prove that an accusation is false. All he has is his word, which other wealthy and powerful men are perfectly prepared to believe, since they're smeared with the same slime every day themselves. The public however, is typified by the commentators here, who have never experienced five minutes of being wealthy and powerful, and who clearly never will. They don't have the slightest idea what they're talking about. On top of that, imagine the reaction of the ordinary Western female to the story. The very gods forbid anyone should imply that females are nothing but whores.

  17. So a politician cannot stand up in front of the cameras, recorders, and males and females of the media circus, and tell people the truth. He would be laughed out of office if he did. So females continue to get away with their habitual behavior, while males do the work and pay them off. Naturally, politicians don't want to discuss this disgusting part of their professional life, because, number one, it's embarrassing, and number two, none of them can prove what they say. Saying nothing is their only choice, and that has been true ever since there have been wealthy and powerful men and females.

    • So you're saying instead of the possibility of us taxpayers paying for someones deck or home edition; we have in fact enabled "gold diggers" a form of revenue.
      Nice but I'm not buying it. Even if it were the case, the rugs get musty when that much dirt is swept under them.
      I wager the only way to put this to rest is to let Shelia Fraser to do her job of ensuring that the Canadian Government's spending is properly recorded and scrutinized in accordance to proper accounting methods.
      The political issues are for others to quibble over.

  18. This is like a business letting employees write their own paycheques without telling the boss how much they are earning.
    . Come to think of it that is exactly what it is.
    We , as taxpayers have a right to know where every single penny of our outrageous tax bill is being spent.

  19. Taxslave I have truly enjoyed reading your very accurate point of view. Right now in Ontario there is a major battle over Bill16 which would cut $750 million to front line health care workers/pharmacists by removing the pharmacists' special allowance fund…Simplified, the government's argument is to save the 'taxpayers' money when buying their perscriptions by removal of this allowance…the goverment's position is this special allowance fund has been widely abused by big corporation pharmacies leading to an increased cost to the consumer to purchase necessary medications. IMHO, if the government is willing to even go to the lengths of passing a bill to make pharmacists accountable…shouldn't they be willing to at least do the same and introduce a bill in which their own 'spending allowances' are made transparent to the taxpayer/taxslave?!! If not, and they are unwilling to provide the public with this information, perhaps 'their' political allowances should also be canceled. As elected government officials. perhaps being allowed to serve constiuents and effect change for a greater good could be their true reward!

    • For a "simplified" explanation, you sure muddied up the waters. This is a not a "cut" of $750 million, as the government is not the one that is putting the money up in the first place. The money is given to the pharmacists by the generic drug companies. They recoup these funds through higher prices on their products. By disallowing this practice, the government is ensuring that prices on these drugs will be lowered. The result will be less flexible pharmacy hours, and no pharmacists to help us read the back of Tylenol labels. Pharmacists will still be charging dispensing fees, and still be required to offer advice on prescription medication. As a member of the public in Ontario, I'm willing for the pharmacy department of my Shoppers Drug Mart to be open less hours if I don't have to pay as much for medication. This is only a major battle to the pharmacists, most of the general public are disengaged and/or unsympathetic to the "plight" of the pharmacists.

      • Straittohell, I see you have been reading liberal propaganda regarding this…I call it propaganda because it makes out that they are doing this for the good of the average tax payer and they back it up with fancy stats, charts, and bla bla bla. For someone who thinks the general public doesn't care you are sadly misinformed there as well. I suggest you read historical freedom of information documents made available for a more accurate view regarding the funding, dispensing fees and services.although I doubt you will be bothered because you 'think' you are already 'informed' enough ..My bet is you live in Toronto, are a Conservative and have little compassion for the plight of many people who have struggled during these disasterous economic times…or have no compassion for people who are vulnerable and less fortunate. No I am not a bleeding heart, just a human being who has not abandoned my humanity and will ALWAYS defend the underdogs of this country from bullies…political or otherwise. If it's ok to pass this type of Bill input from the general public…without debates or plebiscites..then when and where will the hammer fall next and who will be the next to suffer from their ill-thought out unilateral decisions.

  20. I refuse to get into a battle of witts with someone who is sadly so unarmed. You have not bothered to read any other articles giving different points of view…I have…I have researched both sides of the taxpayers' proverbial 'coin'. When you can illustrate that you want to do more than just win an argument, I will gladly rejoin and debate the issues with you…but I am not here to for a power or ego trip…how many letters have you EVER written to your local MP or MPP…do you even bother to vote? I try to effect change by being part of this system even if it is broken….I don't stand back and throw stones into government glass houses.

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