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Are taxpayers paying for MPs' moats or toothbrushes?

By Kevin Gaudet
web posted July 13, 2009

Could Canadian taxpayers have paid for the clearing of a moat around the house of a Member of Parliament (MP)? However unlikely this is, taxpayers may never know. Unbelievably, MPs refuse to make public the details of $127 million of spending from their office budgets. They even have refused to allow the Auditor General (AG) to look at their books. Such spending should be made fully public as it is for Toronto City Councillors and subject to audit by the AG. If the spending is as squeaky clean as MPs claim, they should have nothing to hide and nothing to fear from shedding light on it.

A recent scandal over outrageous spending by British MPs has caused resignations, recriminations and early retirements. British MPs fought tooth and nail in court to avoid having the results from a freedom of information request for these expenses released. No wonder. The information revealed crazy MP spending, including taxpayers paying for; the clearing of a moat, a nanny, a husband's adult videos, a second home 10 kilometres from the first home, personal furniture delivered to ineligible locations, $1,000 a month without receipts for food, Sinn Fein MPs claiming over $1 million for second homes while never taking their seats in London, an MP hiring his son who was a full-time student, a tooth brush and a $1 drain plug, just to name a few.

One rightfully wonders what would be found in Canadian MPs' expenses.

Despite the opacity of MP spending, the Canadian government has made some positive strides over the years providing increased transparency of government spending. Since April 2004, the government publishes on the internet departmental spending of grants and contributions of $25,000 or more and contracts of $10,000 or more.

Prior to that, at the end of 2003, Prime Minister Martin announced a new policy on the mandatory publication of travel and hospitality expenses for selected senior government officials and cabinet ministers (though not their Parliament or riding office expenses). This includes information on the travel and hospitality expenses for political staff and senior bureaucrats.

It is peculiar and sad that taxpayers may learn more about the spending habits of an unelected, unaccountable, junior political staffer or senior federal bureaucrat, than they can learn about the spending habits of an elected backbench Member of Parliament.

Accountability and transparency in government spending seem obvious and a simple thing to accomplish. With the high quality and low cost of today's digital technologies (including digital scanners, the internet and cheap hosting) disclosing all of government spending should be technologically easy. However, it requires the will of those spending the money. And that is what is lacking in Ottawa when it comes to Members of Parliament spending out of their office budgets. 

One lone MP, Michelle Simson, the Liberal MP for Scarborough Southwest, has just broken ranks and published on the internet her office expenses by category. She deserves tremendous credit for besting all other MPs who refuse to do the same. She should also be encouraged to take it further, by following the City of Toronto example and publishing all receipts and invoices and to include her per diems and housing allowance.

After having been caught with their own silly spending scandal, Toronto City Councillors now have posted online all their expenses with digital copies of all receipts and invoices. Councillors had been billing taxpayers for bunny suits, bottles of aspirin, paperback novels and espresso machines! Now Toronto taxpayers may judge for themselves if the spending provides value for money.

Canadian taxpayers have only the word of MPs that such silly spending hasn't occurred. 'Trust us,' they say. Given how successive governments for too long have treated public funds like a personal piggy bank; MPs don't deserve the public trust. They must, instead, work to earn it. They can start with leading by example, revealing how they spend their budgets and by inviting in the Auditor General. Transparency breeds accountability. ESR

Kevin Gaudet is the federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. © 2009, Kevin Gaudet

 

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