Greg Weston: No rule changes for MPs despite expense scandal

This week, MPs headed home for their summer vacations having changed not a single rule affecting their own expenses, and how they will blow through almost $450 million this year on everything from office supplies to martini dinners.

MPs and Senators still essentially policing themselves

If you were imagining that these past months of Senate expense scandals would surely lead to tighter controls on how MPs and senators spend taxpayers' money, you will just have to go on imagining.

This week, MPs headed home for their summer vacations having changed not a single rule affecting their own expenses, and how they will blow through almost $450 million this year on everything from office supplies to martini dinners.

In the Red Chamber, now trying desperately to escape the stench of malfeasance, there are new spending rules to help guide senators through complicated questions such as: Where do you live?

The auditor general has been called in to do a comprehensive audit of Senate expenses. But that review could take 18 months and it obscures the fact that there is no regular, ongoing oversight by the auditor general, or anyone else, to ensure senators are following the rules.

Ditto in the Commons: It is one of the very few places in government where the auditor general is not allowed near the books.

Senator Pam Wallin is the last one on the hot seat as her travel expenses are still being audited by forensic accountants. Next task: how to prevent these things happening again. (Canadian Press)

MPs still police their own affairs through a committee of themselves called the Board of Internal Economy.

It meets when its members feel like it, and always behind closed doors.

The only public insight into the committee's meetings are the sparse minutes of the proceedings, released to the media usually months after the fact, and routinely offering a lack of detail that renders the documents virtually useless.

For instance, Parliament Hill construction projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars have been announced by the committee as simply "approval of rehabilitation plans."

Just study it

Some of the decisions leave little doubt why they were made in secret.

Consider that barely a month after Senate travel expenses first erupted into a national scandal earlier this year, members of the Board of Internal Economy for the Commons inexplicably decided to give themselves and all fellow MPs a six-per-cent increase in their travel budgets.

The story in the Senate is only marginally better.

With the Upper Chamber ablaze in scandal, the Senate's own version of the board of internal economy, the Senate Standing Committee on Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration, boasts that most of its meetings are open to the public.

But a review of the committee's 13 meetings held between last June and March 7 of this year — the most recent date for which minutes are available — shows the public portion of the meetings lasted an average of fewer than 8 minutes and often less than 5 minutes before the senators moved into secret session.

On one occasion, the committee was in public for two minutes; another time, the doors were locked from beginning to end.  The longest public portion was 25 minutes.

As public outrage has grown over the Senate fiasco, politicians from all parties have put on a good show of being shocked and appalled and devoted to reform.

But so far, they haven't changed anything.

The New Democrats headed out of town this week in a hail of self-congratulation for having passed a motion that their press release promised would "bring full transparency and accountability to the House of Commons."

The move would supposedly "create an independent body charged with ensuring accountability and transparency in Parliament."

Or not.

In fact, by the time it got through the Commons vote, all the NDP move did was instruct a Commons committee to "conduct open and public hearings with a view to replace the Board of Internal Economy with an independent oversight body."

The NDP motion also tells the committee to ask the auditor general for advice, but makes no mention of getting Parliament's spending watchdog to sniff through MPs' expenses.

While the NDP move requires the committee to report its findings and recommendations by December, what happens to it after that could well be nothing at all.

In the words of a spokesman for Conservative House Leader Peter Van Loan, the committee isn't being ordered to replace the existing secretive system, just study it.

Behind closed doors

Earlier in the month, the Liberals took their shot at this transparency thing with Justin Trudeau proposing a series of motions apparently aimed at opening MPs' spending to more public scrutiny.

The first two motions would have required the Board of Internal Economy to post all MPs' travel and hospitality expenses online every three months, similar to the detailed disclosure reports currently filed by federal cabinet ministers.

The third Liberal motion called on the auditor general to do general "performance audits" on the Commons administration every three years.

And finally, Trudeau wanted a Commons committee to come up with "guidelines" for when and how the auditor general might actually be called in to do a detailed audit of MPs and their offices.

All four motions were defeated.

Since then, Trudeau has pledged that all Liberal MPs would begin posting their travel and hospitality expenses online. But not until the fall.

Trudeau also promises one of his Liberal MPs will introduce a private member's bill sometime in the coming months to open to the public almost all of the proceedings of the Board of Internal Economy.

As for the Conservatives, Treasury Board President Tony Clement seemed to welcome Trudeau's proposal for MPs to post their expenses online.

But the minister stopped short of committing that Conservative MPs would actually do it.

That, he said, would be up to the Board of Internal Economy to decide.

Behind closed doors, of course.