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Layton vows stiff fines for MPs - like Ignatieff - who skip votes

NDP Leader Jack Layton speaks to supporters at a town hall meeting on April 20, 2011 in Thunder Bay.

Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS

MPs who are repeatedly absent when votes are taken in the House of Commons should face a significant fine, Jack Layton says.

The NDP Leader and his wife, MP Olivia Chow, spent an hour with talking with the morning hosts on the Sun TV network on Thursday morning.

It was there that Mr. Layton outlined his proposal to dock MPs $1,000 if they miss half the votes in a given year without a good excuse.

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"It's a question of making sure that members of Parliament show up and vote," Mr. Layton said.

"Here we have some people looking for a promotion when they're not showing up for work," he said. "Most Canadians I know say they docked pay if they don't show up for work. So we can understand that sometimes MPs have to be in their ridings."

The proposal takes direct aim at Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, whose attendance record Mr. Layton criticized in the debates.

A Globe and Mail report earlier this year showed he had missed 59 per cent of the votes between November, 2008, and December, 2010, and had the worst attendance record of all MPs. Conservative Leader Stephen Harper missed 46 per cent of the votes during the same period.

By contrast, Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc Québécois and Jack Layton of the NDP managed to be in the House for about 97 per cent of the votes - missing only 10 and 11 of the 311 votes, respectively, in the same period.

But Mr. Layton's proposal would make allowances for MPs who miss votes for good reasons including parliamentary and committee business, personal and family illnesses, and pressing constituency work. So it is unclear how effective it would be.

Even now, MPs must account for any days missed by checking off one of three reasons: illness, public or official business, or other.

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But it is up to each individual MP to decide whether the way they are spending their day counts as an absence. They are permitted, for instance, to declare days spent in their riding a working day even when the House if in session. And no one checks if the excuses are valid.

As a result, even though 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.

The Globe found that, since 2006, many MPs appear to have been absent for more than 30 and even 50 days based on their voting records and the records of who attended committee or spoke in the House.

As for the absences of Mr. Ignatieff, the Liberals maintain he was busy trying to rebuild his party's fortunes across the country and, by tradition , the Opposition Leader and the Prime Minister generally avoid voting on the many private-member's bills and "that tends to skew the voting numbers."

Duff Conacher, co-ordinator of Democracy Watch, a group that lobbies for more transparent and honest government, questioned the NDP's commitment to fine MPs for their absences.

"While the NDP's good government 'Fix Ottawa' section of its platform sets out a few key measures such as voting system reform, restricting the PM's power to prorogue Parliament and to appoint party hacks to the Senate (and abolishing the Senate in the long term), and establishing a fair and transparent process for funding citizen groups, the platform does not contain the measure to fine MPs for not attending the House," Mr. Conacher said in an e-mail to The Globe.

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"As a result, no one should believe that the NDP will actually push for this measure," he said. "If the party was serious it would have put the promise in writing in its platform."

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