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Thursday, 27 June 2013 08:32

MPs trying to catch up with public’s need for more transparency

Written by  Matthew Liebenberg
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The acrimony in the House of Commons over the lack of ethical behaviour of politicians and their parties came to an end last week when MPs departed for their summer break with only a slim chance they have learned anything from their own mudslinging.

For weeks the debate during question period, which was dominated by the Senate expense scandal, descended into “gotcha” politics between the government and opposition parties. The response of Conservative Party MPs to questions about the scandal was simply to point their fingers back across the aisle with reminders of questionable ethical behaviour within opposition ranks.
Many words were spoken by members of all parties about their commitment to transparency and ethical behaviour, but they left Ottawa with no rule changes to improve oversight on how they are spending taxpayers’ money.
What MPs did do was to approve a 1.6 per cent salary increase and a 6.7 per cent increase to their travel-related expense budget. This was done on March 25 by the all-party House of Commons board of internal economy, which has often been criticized by transparency advocates for its closed-door meetings.
The final day of the session did provide some hope for future improvements to accountability procedures when MPs supported a NDP motion that calls on the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to consider increased oversight measures when the House reconvenes in the fall.
But even getting to this point did not happen without some disagreement. A week earlier a number of motions by Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau did not receive the unanimous consent of the House.
Trudeau’s motions suggested the Board of Internal Economy should start to post MPs expense reports on a quarterly basis to the Parliament of Canada website and the Auditor General should conduct performance audits of the House of Commons administration every three years.
Another motion by Trudeau proposed the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs should develop guidelines under which the Auditor General can perform more detailed audits of parliamentary spending.
If accepted these proposals could have already started a process toward increased spending accountability, but in the case of the NDP motion that will be delayed until at least next year.
The motion that was agreed to by the House on June 18 instructed the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to conduct public hearings about the replacement of the Board of Internal Economy with an independent oversight body and to study the oversight practices followed by provincial and territorial legislatures as well as other Westminster-style Parliaments.
The motion also asked the standing committee to consider the previous motions made by Trudeau and to study the need for any changes to the administrative policies and practices of the House of Commons, the Parliament of Canada Act or any other legislation.
The standing committee must report its findings to the House of Commons no later than Dec. 2, 2013.
This will make it possible to implement any changes to expense disclosure and reporting before the start of the next fiscal year.
For MPs, it is a case of trying to catch up with demands from the Canadian public for greater accountability.
The latest Canadian Press - Harris/Decima survey results, which were released June 13, indicated nine in 10 Canadians (89 per cent) feel that expenses claimed by MPs and Senators should be available online for public viewing.
This measure is supported by 97 per cent of NDP supporters, 95 per cent of Liberals and 86 per cent of Conservatives.
The poll also indicated a serious public distrust in the behaviour of politicians. Almost nine in 10 people (86 per cent) feel it is likely that MPs and Senators are claiming improper expenses.
For MPs the summer barbeque circuit is an opportunity to talk about the achievements of their parties during the past parliamentary session. But for voters it is an opportunity to ask their MPs to respond to a straightforward question: Are you willing to regularly publish your expense reports for any taxpayer to see and will you publicly encourage other MPs to do the same?
Matthew Liebenberg is a reporter with the Prairie Post. Contact him with your comments about this opinion piece at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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