Answering a single written question from a Liberal MP cost the federal government $117,188 in staff time, according to information tabled this week in the House of Commons.
The right to ask departments for written answers is a key tool for MPs – primarily on the opposition benches – to dig up information that can later be used against their political rivals.
The answers can lead to news stories on the details of government expenses, revealing everything from how often cabinet ministers use government jets to how much the RCMP spends destroying marijuana crops.
The process – officially known in Parliament-speak as answers to questions on the order paper – can also provide insight into the impact of public-policy decisions.
But Conservative MP Mike Wallace weighed in with a question asking how much departments spend on answering these types of questions.
Over less than a four-month span up to Jan. 29, 2014, the total was more than $1.2-million.
In an interview, Mr. Wallace said he simply wants MPs and the public to be aware of the costs of these questions.
"I think it's just important that it's on the record," Mr. Wallace said. "I think government and Parliament could run more efficiently and effectively in a lot of areas and this is just one little tiny example of where, are we sure we're getting value for the dollar?"
The fact that one question cost more than $117,000 might lead the public to ask questions, he said.
"'Ok, you spent a salary for a person and a quarter for a year. What are you doing with that answer?" he asked.
Plenty, insists Liberal MP John McCallum, who made the request. The MP had asked for a list of all briefing notes provided to all deputy ministers in government. The responses were then divided up among Liberal MPs, who then filed questions under Access to Information – a separate process available to the public – to obtain briefing notes that may be of interest.
"I think those cost numbers are totally inflated," he said, noting that the answers would have been in an existing database. "It's inconceivable to me that it would cost anything on that order. But the more important point is this is the cost of democracy. The government spends millions of dollars hiring communications people to keep information from us … So we're obliged to use the tools that we have available to ask the questions that Canadians want answered."
The answer to Mr. Wallace's question was provided by individual departments and compiled by the Government House Leader. The estimate is based on how much it would cost for a public servant with a salary and benefits of $116,160 – equivalent to $60 an hour – to produce the answer.