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The Globe and Mail

CBC doesn't think turnabout is fair play on expenses

CBC's The National went hard Thursday night in criticizing the decision by MPs not to let Auditor-General Sheila Fraser look at their books.

"Hello! What planet are these people on?" Peter Mansbridge said off the top of the newscast to promote the show's At Issue political panel discussion. "Andrew, Allan and Chantal on the half a billion dollars of expenses MPs don't want you to see."

During the segment, Mr. Mansbridge expressed his surprise that MPs had not already backed down, pollster Allan Gregg defended the position of MPs and accused Ms. Fraser of "running amok," while Toronto Star columnist Chantal Hébert attempted to explain the fear of MPs that they will be "nickel and dimed into a media lynching."

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Maclean's columnist Andrew Coyne was the most critical. "This is our money," he said. "If we would like to count the spoons, that is our privilege as the owners of this country."

The CBC is among many media outlets across the country that are strongly criticizing MPs for a lack of transparency, but the Crown Corporation is in the midst of its own, much quieter, battle to prevent the release of its taxpayer-funded expenses.

The Crown Corporation received $1.2-billion last year from Ottawa - roughly twice the $544-million spent on Parliament. It is currently in a Federal Court battle with the Access to Information Commissioner, who disputes the CBC's blanket refusal to disclose any information regarding its journalistic, creative or programming activities, citing section 68.1 of the Access to Information Act.

For instance, the three panelists on Thursday's At Issue panel receive payments from the CBC that are not automatically disclosed - and are denied under that section when requested under Access to Information.

The Globe and Mail recently submitted an request for all contracts awarded to non-CBC employees to provide regular political commentary on an ongoing basis. The request was denied, citing section 68.1. "As the requested documents relate to our programming activities, we are of the opinion that the records are excluded," the CBC replied in a letter.

It is a clause that has been invoked frequently by the CBC since the Conservative government brought the Crown Corporation into the Access regime as one of its first measures introduced in 2006. As a result, the commissioner has received numerous complaints from requesters who have been denied access to a wide-range of material - including the release of the salaries of high-profile CBC personalities like Don Cherry.

When asked Friday, Ms. Hébert, Mr. Coyne and Mr. Gregg all voluntarily disclosed their speaking fee: $500 an appearance.

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Mr. Gregg said he supports challenging the "hypocrisy" of those in the media who suggest politicians cannot be trusted to act morally with public money. "Let them live by the same standard," he said. "Let's find out what Peter Mansbridge's salary is."

The pollster added he only receives the fee and is not reimbursed for expenses. "The only embarrassing part is how little I charge," he said.

"You could remind Mr. Coyne also that because of the postal subsidies that are given to magazines by the Government of Canada, part of his salary [at Maclean's]is paid by taxpayers' money and he might want to reveal what his salary is as well as a consequence."

For his part, Mr. Coyne said he does not support public subsidies for magazines, the CBC or private media companies and said "glib comparisons" between freelance fees and MP expenses should be avoided. He said there may be an argument for treating arm's length Crown Corporations like the CBC differently than ordinary departments.

"That's why we set them up as Crown corporations, at arm's length from their ministers: to allow them a greater latitude, and greater independence, than they might otherwise enjoy."

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