Want to control parliamentary expenses? Here's how

Dan
Dan Leger
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Here's a proposal to help sort out the problem of questionable expense spending by our political representatives. Why doesn't Parliament, the Commons and Senate, go to the private sector for advice on how to manage expenses? They're standard in every company and usually so simple that even Mike Duffy wouldn't get confused.

It would be no trouble at all, and cheap to boot, to hire a researcher to go through corporate guidelines across Canada and figure out which ones work best. That's what business people call "best industry practices."

Most well-run companies long ago figured out how to allot money for expenses and how to account for them. They're motivated to do it right: excessive or irresponsible spending by employees is an expensive sign of bad management.

Not only that, but improper use of expenses could rule them out as tax deductions by Canada Revenue. No company enjoys jousting with the hard-eyed bureaucrats in the tax department.

In corporations, clear and unambiguous guidelines help keep track of employee spending. Since the guidelines often include measures to fire or suspend employees found to be abusing expense accounts, clarity benefits both employer and employee.

There's no reason why we can't do exactly the same thing in Parliament. MPs and senators are spending public money, yours and mine, so they should be accountable. I think it's fair to say that the Senate has failed to be accountable and so failed to protect the public interest in the four cases now being audited.

Now, legislatures are not corporations. They are made up of elected representatives of the people or, in the case of the Senate, of unelected representatives appointed by elected representatives. MPs and senators have a constitutional mandate and don't serve merely at the pleasure of management, so the two situations are not perfectly comparable.

For instance, it would be wrong to police too closely the costs of communications, like Internet connections or phone bills. MPs and senators should be free to call or contact anyone at any time and to do it without a sense that someone is watching over their shoulders.

It simply wouldn't do to have the government monitoring who has been in touch with opposition members, say for instance, whistleblowers. That seems obvious.

But housing allowances, travel expenses and the like can and should be managed, pretty much in the same way they are in the private sector. There's nothing particularly confidential about where MPs fly and it's not too much to ask about the purpose of their travel.

It doesn't have to be a detailed explanation, just "attending Senate hearings on EI reform," or "attending partisan pep rally with party bag men," should do the trick. Then an expense claim could be approved for the former purpose and denied for the latter.

In the Duffy case, a lot of his travel appears to be for purposes of cracking wise at Conservative party fundraisers. Taxpayers shouldn't have to pay for that, since it amounts to yet another public subsidy for his party. The question of his residence is a separate matter.

As to Senator Pam Wallin, a lot of her travel appears to be over circuitous routes that might or might not end up in Saskatchewan, the province she's paid to represent. Most companies won't pay for employees to ping-pong around the country visiting their several and various residences. Taxpayers shouldn't either.

The priority should be to create unambiguous guidelines that any damn fool senator or MP can follow, with idiot-proof questions like: "where do you actually live?" It wouldn't hurt to include a reminder along the lines of "it is a serious offence to defraud taxpayers through illegitimate expense claims."

They might even try out a frequently-asked-questions page to help the slow learners.

Q: is it okay to claim expenses for which I am not entitled?

A: No.

Then make the whole thing transparent. Post the expense claims online for all to see, and do it at least a couple of times a year. Hire auditors to go over the claims and ask questions when something looks odd.

And then, enforce the guidelines.

Dan Leger is a Halifax-based writer and commentator. Twitter: @Dantheeditor.

Geographic location: Canada, Saskatchewan

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  • Robert Viera
    March 04, 2013 - 23:14

    Dan, On February 7th, my MP, Patrick Brown (Barrie, Ontario), flew to New Brunswick to play in the World Pond Hockey Championships rather than attend a meeting of the health committee that afternoon. Is their any way to find out if his flight to a hockey tournament a thousand kilometers from his riding was paid for by the taxpayer?

  • UPWESTER
    March 04, 2013 - 10:23

    Dan, that makes too much sense to be adopted. What would anyone want to become a Senator for if they couldn't access all those perks and easy money?Another way to hold Senators and politicians accountable is to have a job description. Just about every employee in the country has a job description,from soda jerk to CEO,why not politicians? How can they be rated if you or even they don't know what their job is?