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A Senate clerk waits for the start of Question Period in the Senate chambers on Parliament Hill. (DAVE CHAN FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
A Senate clerk waits for the start of Question Period in the Senate chambers on Parliament Hill. (DAVE CHAN FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Gregory Thomas

Five ways the PM can fix the Senate expense scandal Add to ...

Stephen Harper has done what he can do to Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, and Patrick Brazeau.

By punting the trio from the Conservative caucus, and now, for two years at least, from the Senate, he has come to the limit of his Prime Ministerial powers to exact punishment upon them.

However, Mr. Harper still can fill the gaps in the Accountability Act that allowed the Senate scandal to happen, and will keep the House of Commons scandal from occurring.

For the Prime Minister – the author of the original federal Accountability Act – to rise and answer unending questions about Mr. Duffy in particular, is surely a test in patience and self-control.

Should not the Prime Minister have known what these senators were doing? Should not the Prime Minister have known what his PMO staff were saying to these Senators?

The answer is likely no. Canada does not need its leader reviewing the expense claims of senators, or going through the e-mail exchanges of his underlings, or, for that matter, counting the boxes of paperclips in the office supply room to see if it’s time for another order.

However, Canadians do need a Prime Minister that will clean house by passing new accountability laws, as Mr. Harper did in 2006. In 2006, he toughened the rules around political fundraising and lobbying by insiders. He created the Parliamentary Budget Officer, and the officer of the director of Public Prosecutions, beefed up the powers of the Auditor General and the Ethics Commissioner, and expanded protections for government whistle blowers.

Stephen Harper entered the Prime Minister’s Office on a promise to clean up Ottawa. By tabling a forceful update to the Accountability Act, Mr. Harper can keep that promise and truly fix the Senate expense scandal for good.

Here are five strong pillars on which to build Accountability Act 2.0:

1. Total disclosure of expenses for MPs and Senators: any politician’s room service tab, taxi receipt, constituency office lease, or consultant contract needs to be posted online, where friends and opponents can examine everything to ensure accountability. Slightly more detailed summaries don’t cut it.

2. Total oversight by the Auditor General of Canada over the House of Commons and the Senate: in a world of online expense disclosure and random audits by the AG, Mike Duffy’s expense issues would have come to light early in 2009, sparing him and the Prime Minister a world of grief.

3. Applying the Access-to-Information Act to MPs and Senators: Why shouldn’t taxpayers be entitled to see all the financial paperwork relating to Parliament. We can file Access requests to get documents from the lowliest bureaucrat in the smallest federal department, but not our own Member of Parliament?

4. Recall legislation for MPs and Senators: The system works well in British Columbia, where taxpayers can petition to remove an MLA from the legislature. This would have taken the decision on Mr. Duffy’s future out of the hands of appointed senators and PMO operators, and put it in the hands of the Canadians, where it belongs.

5. Pension punishment for convicted politicians: After Nova Scotia’s political expense scandal, that province eliminated pension entitlements for MLAs convicted of stealing from taxpayers. There’s a private member’s bill that would do the same thing currently before Parliament. The Prime Minister should make it his own and pass it quickly.

Canadians know that the Prime Minister can’t – and shouldn’t – be looking over the shoulder of every political operator in Ottawa, double-checking the math on every expense claim.

But Canadians know the Prime Minister can write a tougher set of rules. He can pull politicians and their expense accounts out of the shadows and out of the back rooms. He can stop another expense scandal before it starts.

Gregory Thomas is federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation

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