MPs and senators are scrambling to show their commitment to transparency amid a damaging controversy over improper Senate expense claims.
Senators debated a Conservative motion on Wednesday to invite the Auditor-General to review members’ expenses, while Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau announced that the party’s MPs, senators and staff would begin publishing travel and hospitality expenses in the fall. Treasury Board President Tony Clement said several hours later that the Conservative government and caucus also support the idea of making more detailed expense information public.
Concern over accountability has taken centre stage in Ottawa as Prime Minister Stephen Harper continues to face daily questions over a secret payment his former chief of staff made to Senator Mike Duffy. Nigel Wright resigned from the Prime Minister’s Office last month after it was revealed that he had given Mr. Duffy more than $90,000 to help the embattled senator pay back improper expense claims.
Mr. Duffy is one of four senators whose expenses have come under scrutiny in recent months. Patrick Brazeau and Mac Harb were each ordered to return tens of thousands of dollars in improperly claimed housing expenses, and a separate audit of Pamela Wallin’s travel expenses is still ongoing.
Mr. Harper has repeatedly said that he did not know about the payment to Mr. Duffy until Mr. Wright told him about it last month. Asked by NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair if Ms. Wallin was offered a similar deal, Mr. Harper said he had personally put the question to Mr. Wright last month. “I did ask Mr. Wright whether he had any similar arrangements or discussed any similar arrangements or had any similar arrangements with other senators and he said ‘no,’ ” Mr. Harper said during Question Period.
On Wednesday, senators debated a motion from government leader Marjory LeBreton to ask the Auditor-General to conduct a “comprehensive review” of Senate and senators’ expenses. The minority Liberals called the motion a “distraction” from questions about Mr. Duffy’s repayment, but said they would support it when it comes to a vote.
“Let’s treat this motion as the distraction it was designed to be,” Liberal Opposition Leader James Cowan said in the Senate. “Adopt it, get rid of it, and return to the serious issue of what Canadians see as hush money flowing from the Office of the Prime Minister of Canada to a sitting parliamentarian.”
The Senate adjourned debate on the motion on Wednesday and will return to the matter on Thursday.
The Auditor General’s most recent report on the Senate was released in June, 2012. It looked at only a small number of senators’ expense claims as part of a larger analysis of the Senate administration, and found problems with the documentation that was submitted.
A spokeswoman for the Office of the Auditor General said it had not received a formal request from the Senate and could not comment further.
Mr. Trudeau said Liberal MPs, senators and staff would voluntarily release quarterly data in searchable formats so that people can “search, play with, utilize, share and actually get to the heart of concerns anyone might have.”
His proposal also includes a bill, due in the fall, to make the House of Commons’ secretive board of internal economy meetings open to the public in most cases, and Mr. Trudeau also called on the House and Senate boards of economy to work with the Auditor-General to develop mandatory performance audits.
Shortly after Mr. Trudeau’s announcement, Mr. Clement said the government is supportive of the idea of making MPs’ expense details public.
“We are absolutely in favour of any measures that would have the same kind of expenses accountability that currently exists for ministers to be expanded to all MPs. And we also have no difficulty opening up the board of internal economy. Of course, that is done by all-party agreement at the board but we have no objection to that either,” he said.
A spokesman for Mr. Clement would not say whether the Conservatives planned to propose the changes themselves. “That will be determined by members of the all party Board. The Minister’s stated the Government’s position,” Matthew Conway wrote in an e-mail.
Mr. Trudeau’s announcement came on the same day that a Conservative-dominated committee watered down a separate transparency bill tabled by one of its own backbench MPs.
Alberta MP Brent Rathgeber’s bill had proposed that any bureaucrat salary over about $188,000 be disclosed. The committee’s changes, against Mr. Rathgeber’s wishes, will mean that salaries would only be disclosed if they are above the maximum amount a deputy minister – the top-ranking departmental position – can be paid. That’s about $444,000, and essentially rules out the vast majority of the civil service.
“I’m obviously very, very disappointed both with the government position and certainly with the [committee’s Conservative] colleagues, many of whom philosophically support this legislation unequivocally, but seemed powerless to resist the instructions that were given to them by the [Prime Minister’s Office], by the whip or wherever the final instructions came from,” Mr. Rathgeber said.
The bill was referred back to the House of Commons for third reading.