No More Mudslinging: Deeper Focus on Accountability Needed on the Hill

 Senate spending scandals shouldn’t be an excuse for pointing fingers, but an opportunity to improve accountability across the board in the Canadian government. 

The latest investigations into the expenses of Conservative and Liberal Senators Mike Duffy, Patrick Brazeau, Mac Harb and Pamela Wallin, have proven troubling. After being reviewed by the internal economy committee, it turns out Brazeau owes $48,745.13 in wrongly claimed expenses while Harb owes $231,649.07. While Wallin’s audit is still ongoing, it’s still difficult to believe that she spent over $330,000, more than any other Senator, on “other” travel expenses since 2010. It’s no wonder Canadians are feeling goosed by the Senate.

The scandal with Mike Duffy reaches all the way to Nigel Wright, Stephen Harper’s former Chief of Staff. It was revealed that Wright wrote a personal cheque to Mike Duffy for $90,000 to help him repay money he owed for wrongly claimed living expenses. News of a million-dollar secret slush fund controlled by Wright for the Conservatives should raise serious concerns about what taxpayer money is truly being put towards. In the meantime, Wright and Duffy refuse to show the cheque or discuss the situation publicly, while the RCMP launches an investigation into the case.

Outside of the Senate, it’s been revealed that Dimitri Soudas failed to pay his taxes while he was Harper’s Communications Director. Given that taxes are sourced deductions from one’s salary while working for the PM, this raises questions about other sources of income Soudas may have had during his time working for Harper. This is a question in the public interest, given that the PM’s aides are all government employees.

There’s no doubt that the rules of governance don’t allow for any of this, but the spotlight shouldn’t be solely placed on Senators or on the Conservative Party. A lack of accountability for personal spending is prevalent throughout the House of Commons and Senate, regardless of party affiliation.

While members of the NDP have been the first to jump at the opportunity to criticize and denigrate the Conservative Party, it may be wise for them to take a look at their own track record.

Recently, two NDP MPs, Hoang Mai and Tyrone Benskin, have revealed they owe thousands of dollars in back taxes to Quebec’s revenue agency. While this isn’t directly related to the expenses they’ve claimed as a part of their positions, they’re still showing a blatant disrespect for their duties as taxpayers and government leaders to the Canadian people.

And yet, these problems aren’t a recent occurrence. A serious lack of accountability has been displayed among the highest echelons of power in recent years.

Olivia_Chow_Photo_Press_Conference_2013-02-22In 2011, Olivia Chow and Jack Layton were named Ottawa’s “million-dollar couple” by the Toronto Star for their lavish personal expenses. While they defended themselves fiercely, claiming they didn’t break any rules, they nonetheless revealed their extravagant living expenses, charging over $42,000 in one year for their Ottawa apartment and per diem expenses. In total, the couple claimed around $1.16 million from taxpayers in just one year. How is this possible and allowable? Why wasn’t a line-by-line listing of these expenses released immediately, in the public interest?

Ironically, the CBC and CTV have had Olivia Chow on their shows as a pundit and spokeswoman for the NDP to comment on the Senate expenses scandal. It is a marvel to watch Chow criticize the Senators when she has yet to release all the documents related to her own expenses in 2011. The accused Senators all argue that they haven’t broken any rules, just as Chow did in 2011. And yet, they’ve still been told they’re in the wrong after being audited. What does this have to say about these Senators, Olivia Chow, and the standards of accountability that all of these politicians maintain for themselves?

The Senate scandal has landed with the same impact on Stephen Harper’s desk as the sponsorship scandal did when Paul Martin was Prime Minister. Harper was going to change all that – but not much has really changed on Parliament Hill.

The only good thing that has come out of all this is that Canadians uniformly seem to want permanent institutional changes to the system and greater oversight. The easiest way to do this would be for the Board of Internal Economy committees of the Senate and the House of Commons to be subject to regular audits by the Auditor General, just as every other government agency is.This would include the AG monitoring the personal expenses of MPs and Senators.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has, in a positive step, called for even further measures, advocating for greater transparency in spending for MPs and Senators. He’s recommended to open up the Board of Internal Economy, making the personal expenses of all MPs and Senators visible to Canadians. He’s also demanded the publication of quarterly, publicly accessible expense reports from each MP and Senator.

While the Conservatives supported Trudeau’s calls, the NDP has refused to do so. It’s time for them to put their partisan differences aside and get on board with Trudeau’s vision. Given their refusal, one can’t help but wonder what they have to hide.

Accountability and transparency to Canadian taxpayers should be the first priority of all Senators and MPs. No party has a clean record – it’s time for government leaders to admit to this and stand up for real change by making themselves accountable to the Auditor General of Canada. After all, what is good for the goose is good for the gander.