Ontario's governing Liberals moved Tuesday to tighten expense rules for elected politicians amid a Senate scandal that's reached all the way to the Prime Minister's Office.
But Premier Kathleen Wynne said the legislation, which was agreed on by all three parties, is not about making her embattled government look good as the front-page controversy unfolds in Ottawa.
"It was actually in direct response to a situation in the provincial legislature and didn't have anything to do with the Senate or the House of Commons," she said.
Wynne was referring to Toronto-area Progressive Conservative Peter Shurman, who came under fire for claiming a $20,719 housing allowance for his Toronto apartment after moving to picturesque Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Currently, members of provincial parliament have to live more than 50 kilometres away from Queen's Park to qualify for a housing allowance of up to $21,719 for their Toronto digs.
If passed, only MPPs who represent ridings more than 50 kilometres away would be eligible for the perk. They must live in Ontario, but they don't have to maintain a residence in their riding.
Shurman, who represents the riding of Thornhill just north of Toronto, didn't violate the rules. But he was fired as finance critic — in which he railed at the Liberals for abusing taxpayer dollars — after refusing to pay the money back.
He said he informed Opposition Leader Tim Hudak about the change in residence and his boss approved it, which Hudak firmly denies.
Shurman, who flies his own private plane, has apologized for suggesting he needed to make the claim because his salary — about $116,000 last year — wasn't a lot of money.
Agreement among parties
Government house leader John Milloy said all three parties agreed to the wording in the legislation, adding that he hopes it will pass swiftly in the minority parliament.
He said he doesn't know of any MPP other than Shurman who would be affected by the amendment.
Former premier Dalton McGuinty, who represented an Ottawa riding, also claimed about $11,000 a year to live in a Toronto house bought by the Liberal party. Milloy said he wasn't aware of it.
The rules don't have to dictate that MPPs live in their riding, because voters don't like it when they don't, he said.
Milloy, who represents Kitchener Centre, said he's not sure he would've been able to hold on to his riding in the last two elections if he didn't live there.
"At the end of the day, voters are going to decide whether that's acceptable or not," Milloy said.
Both the New Democrats and the Progressive Conservatives said they support the change.
Hudak did the right thing, said Conservative Sylvia Jones.
"We have to show some leadership saying that we want to make sure that everybody understands the same rules, and he did that by removing Peter from his role as critic for finance," she said.
The Liberals have been engulfed in their own expense scandals, from handsomely paid health-care consultants nickel-and-diming taxpayers for muffins and coffee to former executives at the province's Ornge air ambulance service billing for chocolate bars and $14 cashews.
Wynne recently defended a $7-million bonus package for 64 executives organizing the Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games, while slamming them for billing taxpayers for "ridiculous" expenses like a 91-cent parking fee.
Ontario's proposed change to expense rules comes as Prime Minister Stephen Harper fights former Tory Senator Mike Duffy's explosive allegations that Harper's office tried to cover up Duffy's controversial expense claims.
In addition to the $90,000 cheque written by Harper's then-chief of staff to pay back the expenses, Duffy said the party's lawyer signed off on a payment of $13,560 towards his legal bills.
The Prime Minister's Office insists Harper was not aware of the arrangement with Duffy.