Thomas Mulcair and the black hole of party accountability
NDP's 'satellite offices' show the transparency gap when it comes to party spending
The current flap over whether the NDP used parliamentary funds for partisan activities is actually much ado about not much.
But it points to a far greater problem of political parties spending millions of tax dollars with all the transparency and accountability of a black hole.
The current controversy involves satellite offices the NDP set up in Toronto and Montreal in 2011, with another that was slated to open in Saskatchewan but never did.
The facilities were leased and used in part by the party, but they also housed NDP staffers paid by the House of Commons, allegedly to perform parliamentary business in cities some distance from Parliament.
The Conservatives and Liberals claim the NDP was trying to pull a fast one on Canadian taxpayers, taking public money designated for Parliament and using it instead to run party operations.
All of which is enough to leave ordinary Canadians nodding off at dinner tables across the land.
But then NDP leader Tom Mulcair made an extraordinary statement: The money came from the party, he said, not the public.
"Not a single cent of taxpayers' dollars was used to rent those spaces," he told a Commons committee.
Oh, that taxpayers should be so lucky.
Truth is, whether the NDP was spending money from its parliamentary budget or the party's coffers makes little difference to taxpayers — almost all of that money ultimately comes from the same pocket.
According to public records, the three main federal parties collectively spent about $50 million in 2012 (the most recent year for which statistics are available).
Roughly $46 million of that — or 92 per cent — came from Canadian taxpayers. Here's the math:
Canadians who gave donations to political parties were reimbursed $22 million in tax credits.
The parties then received another $24 million from the federal government in direct subsidies, based on the number of votes each won in that last federal election.
That adds up to $46 million.
The parties' windfall was even bigger in 2011, an election year, when the grateful taxpayers of the land coughed up a whopping $116 million.
That year, the government refunded $31 million in tax credits to political donors; gave out $29 million in per-vote subsidies to the parties; and passed along more than $56 million in refunds of election expenses incurred by parties and candidates.
While every penny of that comes from the public purse, the nation's political parties cling to the quaint 19th-century notion that the spending of all that money is nobody's business but their own.
Every year, the federal parties have to file audited annual financial statements with Elections Canada.
But those statements merely describe the party's expenditures of so many millions of dollars of public funds in broad categories such as advertising, salaries, travel and hospitality.
Elections Canada has no power to audit or otherwise check a party's books, even though they are accounting mainly for public funds.
The watchdog agency can't even compel parties to hand over a single invoice or receipt to back their financial statements.
Even the auditor general is powerless to follow the money once it is in the hands of a federal political party.
And forget trying to get at all those financial secrets using the Access to Information Act: political parties are exempt.
The category known as other
Given the lack of independent oversight, it is hardly a wonder that parties seem particularly fond of a category called "Other."
In 2012, for instance, the Conservatives' annual filing posted $312,000 as "Other." The previous year, the party claimed $2.3 million of election expenses under the same miscellaneous heading.
In that same election year filing, the Bloc Quebecois claimed fully 10 per cent of its total campaign spending as "Other" — and was thereby entitled to be reimbursed for part of those expenses by Elections Canada with no further proof required.
In short, the federal political parties are able to spend tens of millions of dollars of taxpayers' money every year — and collect massive amounts in election-expense rebates — with almost no public accountability.
The Harper government is gradually phasing out the per-vote subsidies to political parties, so those amounts will be eliminated altogether before the next federal election scheduled for 2015.
But that will still leave tens of millions of dollars a year in public funds disappearing into the black hole of party coffers.
Mulcair was technically correct when he said not a single cent of taxpayers' money was used to rent the party's satellite offices.
Clearly, it was a whole lot more than that.