Five ways to stop the next Senate expense scandal from happening

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By Gregory Thomas, Federal Director, Canadian Taxpayers Federation

Now that the RCMP are investigating, it’s pretty much guaranteed that the Senate expense scandal will have a devastating impact on the people involved. But it’s Canada that has suffered the worst damage in this scandal. Thankfully it’s repairable.

When MPs return from their summer break, they need to take five basic steps to restore public confidence in Parliament.

First, they need to submit themselves to the authority of the Auditor General of Canada.

In 2012, after public outcry forced Parliamentarians to finally agree to let the Auditor General examine the operations of the House and the Senate, they sneakily handed him a blindfold before they let him on the premises.

In his report, the Auditor General conceded that “we did not audit the Board of Internal Economy or Members of Parliament and the work performed by Members’ employees or consultants in their Ottawa or constituency offices. Nor did we audit the procurement of professional services contracts awarded by individual Members.” Ok… well what did they audit them? The auditors reviewed just 264 of 85,000 financial transactions processed that year.

In the wake of the expense scandal, Senator Marjory LeBreton, on behalf of the Senate, asked the Auditor General to examine “every taxpayer dollar” the Senate spends. But when Liberal leader Justin Trudeau asked the House simply to approve drawing up guidelines for the Auditor General to look at MPs spending, his motion was shot down – by the NDP, no less.

Second, MPs and Senators need to post their expense claims and the supporting receipts online. Alberta MLAs are doing it, so are Toronto city councillors. The technology for posting documents on the internet was developed 20 years ago.

Third, MPs and Senators need to make themselves subject to federal Access to Information law. Currently, Canadians can’t compel federal politicians to produce financial documents, such as expense claims, under the Access to Information and Privacy Act.

This is critical: access requests revealed former Conservative minister Bev Oda’s wild spending in London, including her taxpayer-funded $16 glass of orange juice. Cabinet ministers and their expenses are subject to disclosure under the access law. MPs and Senators and their expenses are not. Perhaps that’s one reason why it took seven years for the RCMP to lay charges against former Liberal MP Joe Fontana. The Mounties are alleging that Fontana paid for his son’s wedding reception with a government cheque.

If MPs and Senators were subject to access to information laws, Joe Fontana and Mike Duffy would have been forced to answer awkward questions from reporters and opposition leaders long before the RCMP showed up.

Step four, critical in a democracy: empower Canadians to recall crooked politicians, the way they can in British Columbia, and boot them from office.

Step five, cancel the pension entitlements for politicians convicted in court of stealing from the public, the way they have in Nova Scotia. Canadians shouldn’t have to put up with the spectacle of former Senator Raymond Lavigne, collecting his Parliamentary pension while he sits in jail for submitting fraudulent expense claims. Conservative MP John Williamson has tabled a private member’s bill to eliminate pensions for political fraudsters.

Prime Minister Harper would be well served to steal this private member’s bill and push it as a government bill.

Undoubtedly, there are more than five things Parliament could do to ensure future scandals are kept to a minimum, but they need to start somewhere.

When Parliament resumes this fall, these five steps should be top of the agenda.

Organizations: Canadian Taxpayers Federation

Geographic location: Canada, Ottawa, Toronto London British Columbia Nova Scotia

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