IN THE NEWS~ MPs should disclose all their expenses to taxpayers

PUBLICATION: Vancouver Sun
DATE: 2009.08.19
SECTION: Editorial PAGE: A10

MPs should disclose all their expenses to taxpayers

In May, Sukh Dhaliwal, the Liberal member of Parliament for Newton-North Delta, paid $6,296.89 to fly to Leipzig, Germany to attend the International Transport Forum. An economy return ticket on Lufthansa costs less than $1,300 but politicians don't fly like you do. They travel first class on your dime. It's worth noting that Transport Minister John Baird was already representing Canada at the event.

As David Karp reported in The Vancouver Sun this Saturday, MPs declared expenses of $127.9 million in 2007-2008, or an average of $415,098 for each of 308 MPs. While we have details of Dhaliwal's German junket, most MPs' expense reports fall under 10 broad categories leaving the specifics to our imagination.

When our diligent reporter tried to probe the mysterious "other" category, which accounted for about $700,000 of taxpayers' money, most of the MPs he asked told him to take a hike.

But Peter Julian, the NDP member for Burnaby-New Westminster, revealed all -- and it wasn't much: $1,459.19 for a couple of filing cabinets, a BlackBerry for a staffer, some telephone equipment and a mouse pad. "I think it's a given that the public has a right to know how their dollars are being spent, and whether their dollars are being spent effectively," he said. "You have to be prepared to defend every expenditure. That's just how democracy functions and how Parliament works."

Julian has it exactly right. A few others seem to understand this principle and willing opened their books, including NDP MPs Libby Davies and Bill Siksay and Liberals Joyce Murray and Keith Martin.

But MPs who refused say they are fastidiously following procedures by submitting their expenses to the financial services department of the House of Commons where accounting staff and auditors ensure they comply with the rules laid down by the Board of Internal Economy. But accounting staff can't make public disclosure of expenses; only MPs can do that.

A scandal erupted in Britain this year over MPs' expenses that forced half a dozen resignations and elicited a public apology from Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who claimed $12,000 over two years for weekly cleaning of an apartment he doesn't live in. The abuse by British MPs was pervasive and shocking, with one expensing the draining of the family moat, another claiming the repair of a pipe beneath his private tennis court, and still another charging the public for treating dry rot at her home. Those caught with their hand in the cookie jar argued that they were following the rules. If the theft of public money is permitted under the rules, the rules must be changed.

An academic interviewed in the Sun story asked if we really want all the details on every housekeeping expense. The answer is yes, we do. Not every Canadian will want to scrutinize the minutiae of MPs' expense accounts, but the information should be there for those that do. In the private sector, not all shareholders read the corporate annual report; but every public company is required to produce one. Needless to say, a full accounting of all expenses must be made available to the auditor-general.

Full disclosure will protect the integrity of all MPs and provide to taxpayers some assurance that their elected representatives are spending their money responsibly. It is, as Julian said, how democracy works.

It is unlikely Canada's politicians have the same appetite for public funds for private use as their British counterparts. MPs sitting in Westminster earn less than Canadian politicians and some seem to have made up the difference by dipping into the trough. Canada's federal MPs already make a good living, enjoy gold-plated pensions and, if Dhaliwal sets the example, fly first class.