MPs announced this week they don't want the Auditor-General to look at their books. Now they don't want to talk about it.
Friday afternoon saw MPs rushing for the exits in advance of a one-week break to avoid reporters' questions about the decision by the all-party Board of Internal Economy responsible for House of Commons spending.
Many MPs referred all questions to the two board spokesmen, but for a second day in a row, neither Government House Leader Jay Hill nor Liberal MP Marcel Proulx would speak with reporters or return phone calls.
Auditor-General Sheila Fraser weighed in on the decision Friday, challenging the MPs' stated reason for keeping her out: that she does not have the mandate to audit Parliament.
In a statement, she notes that the Auditor General Act defines the office's mandate as the auditor of the accounts of Canada.
"These accounts include amounts received and expended by the House of Commons," she writes, adding that the office has adopted a practice of requesting an invitation before sending auditors to Parliament Hill.
The decision to reject Ms. Fraser's request for such an invitation comes on the heels of political expense scandals that rocked Britain and Nova Scotia and led to jail time for politicians in Newfoundland.
Those few MPs who did stop to discuss the decision insisted the types of expenses exposed in those scandals - including moat cleaning by a British MP and a $738 espresso machine in Nova Scotia - aren't happening in Ottawa.
"What happened in Nova Scotia, what happened in the U.K. is a very different situation," said NDP MP Libby Davies, a long-time member of the board. "The controls that we have here in the federal Parliament ensure that there are strict procedures, rules and audit."
The Bloc Québécois said it supported the idea but was overruled inside during the closed-door discussions of the board.
"We are completely open to having the Auditor-General look at MP expenses," said Bloc House leader Pierre Paquette. "Unfortunately, the Board of Internal Economy decided otherwise. ... I can't explain it."
MPs do disclose a general breakdown of their office budgets for things like travel and furniture, but do not release specifics and can file some expenses under the heading of "other."
When they return to their ridings, MPs can expect to hear about the decision to snub the Auditor-General. A Leger Marketing survey released Thursday revealed 88 per cent of Canadians think detailed expense accounts of MPs and senators should be made public. The survey of 1,504 Canadians took place May 10-13 and is considered accurate within a margin of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.
MPs and senators manage a combined budget of $544-million a year, which includes individual office budgets and central services such as the library and security. The budget also includes perks such as the services of a tailor for free clothing repair and pressing, and free language training for themselves and their spouses. MPs can also receive free training in media relations.
"Members are provided with standard furniture, equipment and supplies based on a scale of entitlement approved by the Board of Internal Economy," states the guidebook outlining the public services available to MPs.
Both the House board and a similar Senate committee control the expenses of Parliament in all-party meetings that are closed to the public. The House board only releases the minutes of its decisions months after the fact.
This lack of transparency ran into the objections of auditor-general Denis Desautels in 1991.
"Little public information on House administration is available," the report stated.
The conclusions were not particularly harsh, but 19 years later, the Auditor-General is still waiting for another invitation.