Members of Parliament are refusing to let Auditor-General Sheila Fraser examine their expenses, saying she has no right to look at their books - and they don't plan to give her one.
At a time when all federal departments are cutting programs and squeezing budgets to reduce the deficit, MPs officially rejected Ms. Fraser's suggestion that her office could help find further savings in the way Parliament spends more than $500-million a year.
"Following careful consideration, the Auditor-General will not be invited to conduct a performance audit of the House of Commons," reads a statement released Thursday afternoon as many MPs and Senators headed for the airport to get a jump start on a one-week recess.
The Board of Internal Economy, which issued the statement and is responsible for all House of Commons spending, holds its meetings in private. Neither of the board's two designated spokesmen - Government House leader Jay Hill and Liberal MP Marcel Proulx - returned phone calls to discuss the decision.
The board claims the proposed audit would go beyond the scope of the Auditor-General's mandate, "which allows her to audit government departments and various Crown agencies as identified in the Act, but does not include the legislative branch."
The statement goes on to note that external audits are already in place and that office budgets for MPs are posted online. What goes unsaid is that nothing prevents MPs from inviting the Auditor-General in - as evidenced by the two previous audits of Parliament in 1980 and 1991.
"Personally, I'm disappointed," said Liberal MP Michelle Simson, a rookie Scarborough MP who unilaterally decided to post her detailed parliamentary expenses online. "There seems to be a public appetite just to be assured by someone like Sheila Fraser … because people just don't believe politicians anymore."
Ms. Fraser originally asked Parliament last year to invite her auditors in, but in April she told reporters she was still waiting for a response. She also challenged the argument put forward by MPs that they are already thoroughly audited.
"The combined Houses of Parliament spend some $500-million a year. We think it is important for accountability purposes that there be an audit done," Ms. Fraser said at the time. "The work that we do is very different."
The decision by the House will probably lead to a similar decision by the Senate.
Speaking personally, Conservative Senator David Tkachuk said he was not supportive of the idea, in part because the Senate has already contracted several independent audits.
"I have a lot of problems with this frankly. I'm not worried or scared of her or anything. I don't care what she does. But when she does a performance audit, she's talking about programs … well, we do none of that," said the senator, who chairs the committee responsible for Senate spending.
The last Auditor-General's audit in 1991 found the House administration had improved significantly since the 1980 audit, but the report called for more transparency regarding the expenses of MPs. The accompanying audit of the Senate raised more serious concerns. It found examples of nepotism in which Senators hired relatives to work as secretaries and offered family members free Senate flights that had nothing to do with official business.
Kevin Gaudet, the director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said recent expense scandals in Britain and Nova Scotia prove that simply relying on existing accounting rules is not enough to prevent abuse.
"They have the authority to give her the authority," he said. "There is no excuse for politicians to hide their spending. All it does is further fuel suspicions of Canadians generally that politicians are a bunch of crooks and thieves."
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