What are your thoughts on Auditor General Sheila Fraser examining the expenses of Members of Parliament?

Interviewed by host Rex Murphy on the May 23, 2010 program

"What are your thoughts on Auditor General Sheila Fraser examining the expenses of Members of Parliament?"

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  • Don Martin
    Columnist National Post.

  • Kenneth Dye
    Former Auditor General 1981-1991, under both the Trudeau and Mulroney administrations

  • Peter Stoffer
    NDP Member of Parliament for Sackville-Eastern Shore, Nova Scotia.

  • Lydia Miljan
    Associate Professor of political science at the University of Windsor and author of "Public Policy in Canada", published by Oxford University press. And the co-author of "Hidden Agendas: How Journalists Influence the News".

  • John Robson
    Columnist for the Ottawa Citizen and an Invited Professor at the University of Ottawa teaching American history.

Rex Murphy's introduction to the May 23, 2010 program:

"What are your thoughts on Auditor General Sheila Fraser examining the expenses of Members of Parliament?"

Presently there's a controversy over the request for Auditor General Sheila Fraser's request to do a performance audit of MPs and Senators expenses.

It all started when Auditor General Sheila Fraser asked to look at the books of individual MPs. Their expenses are currently audited by a private firm and the results are posted by Parliament on a website in broad general categories. An audit by Sheila Fraser would be performance-based to determine whether taxpayers' money is being spent wisely and the results would be made public in detail.

The MPs responded through the House of Commons board of internal economy, which is composed of MPs, essentially saying, 'no thanks, it's not necessary.' And the leaders of all the parties, with the exception of Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe, agree that the current system works just fine.

It's also pointed out by some MPs that scandals such as the one that flared in Great Britain - over some of the strangest expense claims ever - the "moat" is now the most famous; or, the scandals recently in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia --- that, with the posting online of total expense amounts --- those kind of scandals can't happen.

As Mauril Belanger stated in a CBC story - reflecting back on the British affair -- "Everyone knows how much each MP spends," he said. "That situation that exists elsewhere would not exist here."

Furthermore, there is, at least informally or unofficially, some resistance to the Auditor General "expanding her mandate." The Speaker of the House of Commons send a letter to the Auditor General arguing "would be beyond the scope of the Auditor General Act, which mandates your office to audit departments of the government and various Crown agencies as identified in the act, but does not include the legislative branch, including the House of Commons and its administration."

The Auditor General replied to that rather tersely: "The Auditor General Act does not list the agencies and departments to which our mandate applies; rather Section 5 of the act provides that 'the Auditor General is the auditor of the accounts of Canada.' These accounts include amounts received and expended by the House of Commons."

That's the official face of the contest - but there is little question MPs and party leaders are resisting the Auditor General's request - in the shadow of the scandals in Britain and Newfoundland and Nova Scotia - they fear a couple of egregious mischiefs - and in a Parliament of over 300 - and a Senate of 105, some mischief almost certainly will be found.

What is the best way to keep track of the expenses of individual members of Parliament? It is not a huge amount of money when compared with other sums spent by government ($125-million out of the overall House of Commons budget of $500-million) ...but it goes to the heart of issues of trust, openness, and accountability. Many MPs say an independent outside auditor is a better way to do it than using Parliament's own Sheila Fraser. Some suggest that detailed reports of expenses allow the cynically-minded free reign to misuse and distort the information to impugn the reputations of MPs.

Not surprisingly the public is solidly behind the Auditor General - and there is something approaching consternation about why MPs are claiming to be exempt for her purview. A few individual MPs - we will be interviewing one this afternoon - are agreeable to the notion. But so far the Conservatives, the Liberals, and the NDP have kept a solid front on this. It's a curious political posture with public opinion so solidly in the other direction.

Well today we'd like to sample your opinion on this controversy. Do you think the Auditor General should review and report on MPs and Senators' expenses? Or, do you think that the outside KPMG audit of MPs and Senators is sufficient and should remain?

What do you think? Do present day expectations of openness, accountability and transparency demand an open public audit? Or will such openness lead to another kind of abuse that would harm people elected to serve the public? Are there ways of ensuring public money is well-spent without revealing all the personal details?

Why do you think there is resistance from the government and opposition parties to this request? Is it the fear that a more detailed audit would hold potential embarrassment for MPs or Senators? What do you think of the claim as expressed in the Speaker's letter that Sheila Fraser is "going beyond the scope of her office" in making her request.

I'm Rex Murphy ...on CBC Radio One ...and on Sirius satellite radio channel 137 ...this is Cross Country Checkup.


Ottawa Citizen


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