MP expense disclosure promise no 'brave new world': Greg Weston

As public opinion against the Senate has turned from bad to ugly, all three parties in the Commons are promising to post online all of their travel and hospitality expenses starting in April next year. But Greg Weston says the Commons is not entering some brave new world of full disclosure.

Expense totals posted online will be difficult to scrutinize

Beginning in April, members of Parliament will be posting online their expense totals for travel and hospitality. But without a detailed breakdown of those totals, Canadians are blocked from knowing whether their money is being spent wisely. (Canadian Press)

Canadians might be excused for imagining that months of national outrage over the Senate expenses scandal would have convinced the country’s elected MPs to fling open their kimonos and expose their own secretive spending to full public scrutiny.

Instead, the federal politicians are apparently hoping to show just enough to appease taxpayers without exposing any potentially embarrassing bits.

At issue is the roughly $450 million a year it costs taxpayers to keep federal MPs in everything from pencils to paycheques.

Meanwhile, in Alberta...

While federal MPs debate what not to tell taxpayers, the Alberta government of Alison Redford has brought in simple expenditure disclosure rules that are certainly easy to understand.

"All expenses will be published online, along with full receipts." No exceptions.

The policy is intended to provide full disclosure of expenses such as travel, accommodation, meals and hospitality.

It applies to all ministers and their political staffers, members of Redford's Conservative caucus, deputy ministers and other high-ranking public servants and to senior officials in provincial agencies who are paid directly by government.

The policy came into effect a year ago, and an Alberta government spokesperson says the system is working exactly as intended.

- Greg Weston

For decades, the politicians have brazenly excluded themselves from increased transparency even as they were imposing it on public servants and the rest of government.

Even now, after all that has gone on in the Senate, MPs continue to make up their own expense account rules, their daily creature comforts allocated by a committee of themselves, meeting entirely behind closed doors.

In short, MPs have been living in the same kind of fiscal wonderland that spawned the Senate expenses scandal, and which has been criticized by all manner of watchdogs from the auditor general to the information commissioner to the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation.

As public opinion against the Senate has turned from bad to ugly, all three parties in the Commons are now promising to get their own house in order, in part by posting online all of their travel and hospitality expenses starting in April next year.

(The Liberals are already posting monthly totals of their expenses, and the Conservatives are pledging to follow suit by the end of this month.)

Are MPs finally going to practise what they preach about accountability to taxpayers?

Well, not exactly.

Don't bother looking for receipts

While the Commons is about to take several leaps in the right direction, it is not entering some brave new world of full disclosure. Far from it.

Most MPs’ expenses are already posted online, but in a bulk format that defies any kind of meaningful public scrutiny.

Civil servants have to account for every dime they charge to the treasury with proper documentation including receipts, all of which are available to the public under the Access to Information Act.

But not MPs and cabinet ministers — they have used a legal loophole to conveniently exempt their expenses from release under the Access to Information Act.

The same will apply to the changes all three parties are making — the expenses they will be posting online are totals for travel and hospitality.

And without a detailed breakdown of those totals, there’s no way Canadians can know whether their money is being spent wisely or, say, on a $16 glass of orange juice.

Among all parliamentarians, some federal cabinet ministers have been the worst offenders in the Commons game of hide-the-money.

For over a decade, they have been racking up millions of dollars in travel and other expenses dutifully posted online, knowing the public can never get at the details of their spending.

Former Liberal cabinet minister Sheila Copps, for one, famously ran up over $1 million in travel without having to account publicly for a single receipt.

Generous allowances

All MPs have a lot of money to spend, a lot of discretion about how to spend it, and not enough public accountability.

For instance, like senators, MPs who live outside the capital region get an allowance of up to $28,000 a year to pay for housing in Ottawa, including all utilities, phone, cable and parking, plus meals at a flat rate of just over $90 a day, no receipts required.

Even MPs with ridings in the Ottawa region are entitled to claim $48 a day for breakfast and dinner when the Commons is sitting, plus mileage (at about 54 cents a kilometre) to drive to and from Parliament Hill and their homes each day.

All MPs using their cars to get around their respective ridings are entitled to the mileage reimbursement — no proof of actual use required.

Every MP gets up to 64 free round-trip flights a year, mainly to fly between Ottawa and the home riding, regardless of cost. Up to 25 of those freebies can be used to go anywhere in Canada, and include four flights to and from Washington and New York — no public explanations required.

Spouses, kids and designated “others” can share some of the free flights. No questions.

Finally, MPs are allowed up to about $10,000 in “hospitality” for such things as taking guests to dinner, gifts for constituents, and flowers for the deceased.

Of course, just as parliamentarians have the collective power to keep the public out of their expense accounts, so they have the authority to open their spending to full and meaningful scrutiny.

Until that happens, Parliament’s promised kimono reveal is mostly an enticing bit of leg and a bum’s rush.


Greg Weston was an investigative reporter for CBC News and a regular political commentator on CBC Radio and Television from 2010 to 2015.


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