Let’s hear it for grand totals

November 10, 2010

Our parliamentarians made great strides in accountability this fall. They gave us… grand totals?

Bending to criticism that the $143 million of taxpayers’ money our MPs spend each year on food, hotels, furniture and political flyers ought to be public, the House of Commons has released expense reports that finally removes the veil of secrecy. Sort of.

Certainly, the new expense reports show how our MPs spend our money in better detail than we’ve ever had. They break down spending by category, from equipment rentals to advertising.

They show us, for instance, that Wellington-Halton Hills MP Michael Chong billed taxpayers for $63,293 in travel, meals and accommodation in the fiscal year that ended March 31, while Guelph MP Frank Valeriote spent $75,322.

They show us Chong’s total spending last year was $398,606 and Valeriote’s was $436,681. That’s interesting, on the surface, but it doesn’t really say much about the individual spending of our parliamentarians.

Many MPs fly their spouses and family around with them, on the taxpayers’ dime. But they’re not required to show that in their expense reports. Some of them dine in Ottawa’s finest restaurants, and get us to pick up the tab – and they don’t have to reveal those bills, either.

MPs, meanwhile, are vigorously defending their right to spend our money without giving us any further details.

“I don’t think among our local MPs you’re going to find anything outrageous,” said Kitchener Centre MP Stephen Woodworth. “Do people want to know how many hotdogs I’ve eaten at airports, or how many apples I’ve purchased to get me through the ride? You have to be reasonable.”

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation says Canadians deserve more transparency than grand totals. The City of Toronto, by comparison, makes public every receipt expensed by councillors.

“(Grand totals) aren’t good enough. We don’t know if it’s champagne and caviar or if there’s hookers with them,” said Kevin Gaudet, the federation’s director.

I doubt very much that Gaudet actually thinks our MPs are hiring hookers on the public tab, but his point is this: MPs can insist their expenses are clean all they want, pointing out how they’re vetted by the House of Commons’ board of internal economy.

But the fact remains the public isn’t allowed to see those expenses. The basic message is: trust us.

Imagine saying that to Revenue Canada. When the government is after taxpayers’ money, there’s no such thing as privacy. But if taxpayers want to know how government members are spending their money, it’s another story.

One positive change is that MPs will now be subjected to “spot audits” by the auditor general, for the first time in our history. But the auditor general can’t review every meal, every purchase made by our politicians and their staff.

Why should we care? Because left alone, our MPs and Senators have shown they can make some spending choices that are more than a little questionable.

The most controversial of all is the use of so-called 10 per centers, a nickname that stems from the practice of MPs being allowed to send taxpayer-funded political flyers to voters outside their riding as long as the number doesn’t exceed 10 per cent of the households in their constituency.

The controversial practice was ultimately banned in April, and MPs can now only mail 10 per centers within their own ridings.

But before the ban was in place, taxpayers were paying for a bonanza of campaign literature to be printed and mailed to competitors’ ridings across the country. These were essentially pro-Liberal, pro-Conservative or pro-NDP flyers that most people tossed in the recycling bin.

Across Canada, MPs of all political stripes spent $10.2 million printing and mailing out these flyers last year. Valeriote spent $18,526 on them; Chong spent $1,400.

Most MPs defended the practice, saying it was just a better way to get their message out. As the people picking up the tab, I think we ought to be the judge of that.

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

Guelph Mercury, 10/11/10

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One Response to Let’s hear it for grand totals

  1. Art Wilkins on November 14, 2010 at 2:46 pm

    Hi Greg:

    Your item in the Nov. 10 Mercury was obviously taken from the Toronto Star’s item of Nov. 7 about Jack Layton and Olivia Chow ” million dollar power couple ” where Layton is paid $211,425 and Chow $157,731 for a total family income of $369,156 per year.

    Their total expenses, billed to taxpayers was $1,159,217. This couple lives in a $2000 a month appartment in Ottawa for which they charged $42,478 to the taxpayer.

    One interesting question one must ask is ” do they own and maintain 2 separate homes for the 2 ridings they represent in Toronto ? Another interesting question is ” how much of their salaries do they bank “?

    Mike Chong’s total spending at $398,606 and Valeriote’s was $436,681. The 304 MP’s received an average of $469,101 in expenses so Mike Chong was a little below average while Frank Valeriote was a little above average.

    Let’s face it, running a country costs a lot of money and it certainly appears as though Canada is far behind the United States in porkers.

    Art Wilkins

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