Hey MPs: what’s the big secret?

May 26, 2010

Guelph Mercury, 26/05/10 house_of_commons

Editor’s note: Apologies to Michael Chong for a mistake in an earlier version that made it appear he spent twice as much on travel as Frank Valeriote. Valeriote, of course, was in office for only half as long in that fiscal year. Math!

Maybe they’re worried we’ll insist on car pooling. Or that they start packing their own lunches.

Either way, it’s worth asking your member of Parliament why they think it’s right to refuse Auditor-General Sheila Fraser’s request to open their books.

Last week, members of the Board of Internal Economy – the nine MPs from the four federal parties who oversee the House of Commons budget – rejected a request from Fraser to look at the $576 million of public money MPs and senators spend annually.

MPs say it’s their right to spend that money secretly without having to show the people footing the bill how they spent it. Even the Conservatives, who promised to bring transparency and accountability to Ottawa, are stubbornly defending the practice.

That $576 million includes money for food, translation costs, security, computers and printing, among other things. But it also includes more than $100 million in office expenses for MPs, which is used for travel, hospitality and staff salaries — and it’s completely hidden from the public.

Guelph MP Frank Valeriote says he’s fine with MPs opening their books, and wants his colleagues to send that message to their party leaders. But for now, MPs’ expenses remain secret, with only overall totals for things such as travel being made public.

So we can tell you Valeriote billed taxpayers for $39,306 in travel expenses during his first six months on the job as an MP, according to the Public Accounts of Canada for 2008-09, posted on the government’s Public Works website. But we can’t tell you exactly how he spent that money.

We can tell you his local counterpart, Wellington-Halton Hills MP Michael Chong, who was in office for the full year, billed the public purse for $79,000 in travel costs But we can’t tell you how that breaks down, either.

The same secret spending rules mean we can’t tell you why the NDP’s Jack Layton billed us for almost $220,000 in travel costs. Or why Bob Rae, the Liberal MP who lives in Toronto, an hour closer to the House of Commons, billed taxpayers for more than $115,000 in travel costs.

Mind you, Rae could argue he was thrifty, too, since his total travel allowance is actually $155,400 — or $436 a day, if MPs worked 365 days a year.

Though MPs collectively billed Canadians for $31 million in travel expenses last year, it’s still only a small portion of expenses that MPs quietly ring up every year.

So what’s the secret? It looks like MPs and senators want to avoid the embarrassment at having all of us lowly voters sniff through their spending habits, and find that they billed us for tooth brushes, fancy meals and sexual harassment lawsuits to former parliamentary employees.

They want to avoid bad headlines like the one involving Ontario’s own ombudsman, Andre Marin, who felt taxpayers ought to pick up the tab for his personal grooming products. Marin, who was paid a salary of $216,000 last year, felt that we also ought to pay for his Adidas body wash ($6.99), Degree deodorant ($4.49) and Gillette Fusion After Shave Balm ($7.99), according to records obtained by the Globe and Mail.

For the average Canadian, it’s hard to understand why MPs and senators ought to have a secret budget for themselves. Thousands of us submit to audits by the Canada Revenue Agency every year, or else face dire consequences.

But the people we elect to represent us say they’re beyond that kind of oversight. The message is we ought to trust them, and mind our own business.

That sounds like entitlement to me. And it needs to end.

Greg Mercer is a Guelph-based writer. His column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at greg_mercer@hotmail.com, and past columns can be read at gregmercer.ca

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