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Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)
Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Our Time to Lead

Head count in the House: <br/>Do you know where <br/>your MP is? Add to ...

Showing up for work in Ottawa is arguably one the most important aspects of an MP's job - but when the House returns Monday, Canadians will have no way of knowing if their proxies in Parliament punched the clock.

A Globe and Mail investigation of available data, however, reveals striking patterns of absence and raises serious questions about how often members of Parliament show up to vote.

Unlike senators, whose appearances in the Red Chamber are made public each month, MPs' attendance records are confidential, offering little accountability on one of elected officials' most basic functions: being present to debate and vote on the laws of the land on behalf of their constituents.

And despite a Conservative campaign pledge to lift what Stephen Harper has called a "cloak of secrecy" on government, there is no sign the long-standing tradition is about to change.

"No," Tory Whip Gordon O'Connor said bluntly when asked if the party would consider making attendance a matter of public record. The opposition parties said they are willing to open their books - but none was willing to lead by example and all made unanimous support a condition of transparency.

Intransigence on the issue stems from more than a desire to keep potentially explosive information close to the chest, Mr. O'Connor said.

"I have to deal with people's lives," he said, noting that some MPs have medical conditions or family matters that ought to be kept private. "I am not going to have an open debate."

So with attendance records sealed, counting who showed up for votes in the House and who missed them is the only reliable way to monitor an MP's presence on Parliament Hill.

Working with the website HowdTheyVote.ca, The Globe and Mail analyzed the voting records for the past four years, weeding out "paired voting," when parties arrange for some MPs not to vote to balance out the planned absence of another member.

The statistics are revealing, not only for what they say about attendance but also about party discipline and character.

Seventeen MPs, most of them Liberals, have missed at least one-quarter of the votes in the House of Commons in the past two years.

Three Liberal backbenchers - Jim Karygiannis, Keith Martin and Ruby Dhalla - came close to missing half the more than 300 votes Parliament took between November, 2008, and December, 2010.

"Is it because someone is not in Ottawa or not voting that he's not carrying his weight?" Liberal Whip Marcel Proulx wondered.

"That's a very good debate. I'm not trying to excuse members who are delinquents as far as not coming to votes. Where do you draw the line?"

Every MP is required to file a monthly statement with the Commons Pay and Benefits Branch to confirm they were in the "Commons in Ottawa on each sitting day of the House." They must account for any days missed by checking off one of three reasons: illness, public or official business, or other.

Where each MP draws the line is shielded from the public.

"Defining what absenteeism is, it's almost Ouija-board science," said Don Boudria, a former Liberal party whip with two decades of service in the House.

For example, travelling abroad on government or committee business might count as official business, but what about a party fundraiser?

Mr. Proulx noted that in the case of a riding speech, "some members will declare that as being away from their parliamentary duties and others will not."

"It's kind of fuzzy," he said.

The rules state that an MP who misses more than 21 days in a single session without a valid excuse can be fined $120. Nobody has been fined in recent years, but no one checks if the excuses are valid.

Heather Bradley, spokeswoman for House Speaker Peter Milliken, said the Commons works on the "honour system" and that attendance "has not been an issue."

And that holds up for most MPs. Three-quarters of the MPs were present for almost 90 per cent of the votes in the House.

But since 2006, the Globe examination revealed, 34 MPs showed no activity at all on the Hill; they neither voted nor said a word in House debates, nor did they attend a single committee meeting - all for more than the permitted 21 days of absence per session.

Several were apparently absent for more than 30 and even 50 days.

If there were no fines, presumably they all had good reasons.

But that is impossible to verify because the MPs' monthly attendance reports, once filed with the Pay and Benefits Branch, are treated as personal employment records and remain secret - even from the committee that is supposed to monitor House affairs.

In the spring of 2009, under prodding from the Bloc Québécois, the Committee on Procedure and House Affairs tried to probe the chronic absences of André Arthur, the Independent MP for the riding of Portneuf-Jacques-Cartier, just outside of Quebec City.

While collecting his MP salary of $157,000, Mr. Arthur also hosted a TV talk show for one year and then took up one of his long-time passions - moonlighting as a tour-bus driver.

There is nothing in the House rules that expressly forbids a member from holding a second job.

The matter was dropped when the House committee was not able to get Mr. Arthur's attendance records. By the Globe's count, he missed one out of every three votes in Parliament since 2006.

"When I am in Parliament, it's because I really want to be and I can be useful," Mr. Arthur said in an interview. "They don't pay me for a certain number of hours. They pay me to represent my voters, and I am an excellent MP."

Mr. O'Connor, who has a braided whip framed behind glass in his office, said attendance simply isn't an issue: "I would be aware if somebody was abusing the system and we would bring a halt to it right away."

For now, it seems, Canadians will have no choice but to take politicians at their word.







BY THE NUMBERS

46% - Percentage of votes missed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, 142 out of 311, between November, 2008, and December, 2010, the 40th and current Parliament.

59% - Percentage missed by Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff over the same period - 182 of 311 - the worst voting attendance of all MPs in the House.

3% - Percentage of votes missed by Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe - 10 of 311 - followed closely by NDP Leader Jack Layton, who missed 11 of 311.

17 - MPs who missed at least 1/4 of the votes.

43 - Number of Liberals out of the 50 MPs who missed the most votes the past two years, ranging from Mr. Ignatieff's record to those of MPs such as Ken Dryden and Dominic LeBlanc, who each missed 50 votes - or nearly one in six.







WHAT OTHER COUNTRIES DO

In Australia, politicians have their names checked off before they enter the House of Representatives to be eligible for their allowance for sittings.

In France, missing a third of the public votes will cost an MP one third of his or her salary; fines double if they miss more than half the votes.

In the U.K., attendance by MPs in parliament is "not required or monitored"

In the U.S. Congress, no formal attendance is kept

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