IN THE NEWS ~ NDP presses for new accountability practices in the Commons

Tonda MacCharles, Toronto Star (ON) News, Page A8

OTTAWA - Amid a Commons clamour over Senate expenses, opposition parties have moved to outdo the Conservative government and each other on transparency.

Following a proposal last week by the Liberals to open up meetings of the secretive Commons committee that oversees expenses, bolster it with the auditor-general's participation, and a vow to post online Liberal MP expenses next fall, the New Democratic Party upped the ante Tuesday.

NDP caucus chair Peter Julian tabled a motion to get rid of the all-party Commons committee known as the Board of Internal Economy altogether.

Its Senate counterpart is the committee in the midst of the senate spending scandal, and is accused of "whitewashing" a report on senators' expenses.

Julian says a separate committee should hold open and public hearings to study options and best practices elsewhere, but its goal should be clear: to replace the Board of Internal Economy with an independent oversight body that would monitor expenses and possibly also the secondary, or outside, incomes of MPs.

The NDP wants a report by Dec. 2, with a view to having a new Commons reporting and accountability regime in place by 2014. Its answer to reforming the senate is to abolish it.

In an interview with the Star, Julian (Burnaby-New Westminster) acknowledged improvements in Commons expense reporting in the past year, and said he and others have voluntarily posted their expenses online. But he said Canadians have lost confidence in MPs' ability to police themselves.

"We think this is something Canadians support rather than trying to tinker with a car that's in the wrecking yard," said Julian. "It's not tinkering that's going to make a difference."

It's a bold move given that Parliament is considered its own oversight body, and its committees have the powers akin to a court to compel witnesses and documents, as well as powers to sanction the non-compliant. But it won't be put to a vote until the fall, as MPs are scheduled to recess for the summer this week.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Party under Justin Trudeau is developing more proposals to overhaul transparency and accountability in Parliament - a package that would touch on Access to Information and Privacy laws, governance, and data management issues, said a Liberal source speaking on background.

It could include limits on, or more public disclosure of, the amount of extra income made by MPs who have outside interests in law, real estate, public speaking or other businesses.

Trudeau has been stung this past week by attacks on his judgment for accepting speaking fees as high as $20,000 from some 17 charitable groups since he became an MP.

One group, the Grace Foundation in New Brunswick, went public to the Conservatives with a complaint that it failed to break even on a fundraising event featuring Trudeau in June 2012, and had asked for its money back from the Liberal leader. Trudeau has promised to do so, after his office first defended it as a contract fulfilled.

On Tuesday, a source close to Trudeau acknowledged the issue of secondary incomes earned by MPs is a complex one "fraught with challenges" as many in the Commons continue to carry on work or businesses or receive income outside their parliamentary cheque.

Under Commons rules, MPs don't have to report income less than $10,000, but must disclose other money sources and amounts to the federal Ethics Commissioner. Only a general summary of the income receipt is publicly posted on the Ethics Commissioner's website, everything ranging from pensions, rental properties to farm income.

An analysis by the Star shows 101 Conservative MPs reported secondary sources of income, 65 New Democrat MPs including leader Tom Mulcair, who cited his Quebec provincial assembly pension, and 19 Liberals including Trudeau.

Liberal MP Marc Garneau, former astronaut and head of the Canadian Space Agency before entering politics, said Monday he is waiting for the party to put forward its position, but made clear he gave up making speeches on the side since he became an MP, except for once.

"I did one more that was booked just before the 2008 election which I did after, because I had given them my word that I would do it and that was the last one and so I haven't not been active on the speaker circuit since I've been a Member of Parliament," Garneau said.

He doesn't remember exactly how much money he made but did give "inspirational speeches" to audiences where he spoke "about space."

With files from Andrew Bailey ILLUS: NDP caucus chair Peter Julian tabled a motion to get rid of the all-party Commons committee known as the Board of Internal Economy.