Almost 90% of Canadians Believe MPs and Senators Use Expense Accounts Improperly
“Unfortunately, the situation in Canada appears to be almost identical to what was taking place in the U.K. just before the expenses scandal broke to the public.” Those were the words of British Labour Party member of parliament Tom Harris on air during a one hour broadcast. The hour featured former Toronto area Liberal member of parliament Michelle Simson speaking publicly for the first time to the exact expense account regulatory requirements and documentation provided each of Canada’s elected federal representatives in the House of Commons.
Ms. Simson is not the proverbial whistleblower, or she certainly does not see herself in that role. What Michelle Simson sees herself doing is providing insight to Canada’s taxpayers into the still largely secretive world of expense account spending by Canada’s members of parliament and senators.
While MPs and senators routinely argue their expense spending is already audited and transparant, and while limited audits do take place, the dollar for dollar expense spending accountability to the public for each member of parliament and the Senate remains elusive. It was Michelle Simson who stepped outside the boundaries of established by federal political parties public accountability limits. Ms. Simson decided her constituents particularly and Canadians generally had the right to review expense claims charged to the taxpayers through her office online. A decision initially approved by the Liberal Party. Subsequently though, Ms. Simson was told to stop the practice. She refused and was, she informs, punished.
Punishment included revoking Simson’s opportunity to address parliament, including denying the Scarborough Southwest MP the opportunity to recognize and honour a constituent and fallen 21 year old member of Canada’s military, killed during fighting in Afghanistan.
At this writing, an investigation continues into expense spending by at least four Canadian senators: Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, Mac Harb and Patrick Brazeau.
Duffy and Wallin are former members of the Conservative caucus; Harb and Brazeau ex-Liberals. Each senator now sits as an independent as their expense claims remain under investigation. The RCMP is investigating and Canada’s federal Auditor General Michael Ferguson is in the process of deciding if his office will conduct a full audit of all expense claims by the 102 members of the Senate.
Mr. Duffy’s issues are well publicized, including the $90,000 Duffy used to pay back residential expenses he had claimed. Revelation Duffy received the $90,000 personally from Nigel Wright, former Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, caused Wright to resign and only whetted the appetite of Canadians for more information. Information which would indicate Pamela Wallin had repaid $38,000 in travel expenses claimed prior to a forensic audit by the firm Deloitte and may be requested to add an additional $20,000.
Mac Harb has been asked to repay $231,649 in travel and living expense claims, significantly more than the original $51,482 the Committee of Internal Economy of the Senate had determined Harb owed taxpayers. Harb, as of this writing, is contesting the original committee decision.
Wallin points the finger at spending rules, arguing only direct flights to and from Ottawa and her residence in Wadena, Saskatchewan are counted as regular travel. Should she fly from Saskatchewan to Toronto, where she owns a condo, such a flight says Wallin creates a distortion of her claims.
In June of this year former Liberal senator Raymond Lavigne began a six month prison term for breach of trust, as well as defrauding the Senate of more than $10,000 over 54 automobile trips between Montreal and Ottawa. Lavigne claimed $217.00 for each trip and paid the member of his staff driving only $50.00.
Lavigne also had a member of his staff cut down 60 trees on his property at taxpayer expense. He has now resigned from the Senate, but will continue to collect an annual pension of $79,000.
While expense spending documentation provided to me by Michelle Simson is directed at members of parliament, Ms. Simson says she imagines regulations for senators will prove quite similar.
Of the eight pages of regulations and forms, six are marked “FOR THE EYES OF THE MEMBER ONLY”. These pages cover individual claims made by Ms. Simson, or her office. A seventh page shows claims for a number of automobile trips from Ms. Simson’s constituency in Markham to Ottawa, as well as rent and parking expenses for a total of $4,640.40.
It is the page marked House Of Commons Public Accounts Statement which may be of greatest significance. The page, designated For The Eyes Of The Member Only, shows a Sessional Allowance, which in the Summary of Expenditures indicates $72,269. Travel Expenses totalling $23,849 are also clearly identified.
Michelle Simson insists this information is provided to MPs based on their expense claims and that statements by some members of parliament that to to make these numbers available online is onerous, time consuming, difficult work, or words to that effect, are “bogus.” Ms. Simson insists the information can be made available online in seconds.
Should an MP argue he or she cannot be held personally accountable for all expense spending, the page Delegation Of Authority – Members spells out directly which spending “may not be delegated by the Member.” They include, but are not limited to, “make commitments for matters for which the Member has a personal liability, such as the Centre Block Restaurant account; approve the request for airline or train tickets and approve travel expense claims”.
Simson relates how one, what she considers an MP travel “perk”, troubled her. “I received a VIA Rail pass for anywhere in Canada at anytime, business class to boot. I was told the pass could be converted to two regular class rail trips to include my hubby for travel. Finance pointed out it ‘shouldn’t’ be used for anything other than business, but I dug deeper and determined the nature of that travel was not monitored, ergo, one could use that pass for personal vacations.”
Responding perhaps to growing public unrest, federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has announced caucus members will be posting their expenses online.
Good, but not good enough replies his erstwhile colleague Simson. Taxpayers have a right to know what expense accounts have been used for retroactively, not just going forward. Conservatives agree with Trudeau’s initiative, but federal New Democrat leader Tom Mulcair describes online individual expenses posting as a “stunt.”
Canadians clearly disagree. 86% telling a Canadian Press Harris-Decima poll they believe MPs and Senators are improperly making expense claims and 89% supporting online expense spending reporting for MPs and Senators.
Is there precedent for concern about where expense monies are directed by Canada’s elected politicians? In Nova Scotia, two former provincial cabinet ministers were sent to prison and a third was sentenced to house arrest for convictions ranging from fraud to breach of trust. A fourth, Trevor Zinck, is at this writing in court defending himself against charges of theft over $5,000, fraud over $5,000 and breach of trust.
Tom Harris tells of political party bosses green-lighting British members of parliament to make use of their expense accounts as supplementary salary slush funds because in the opinion of the party bosses the MPs weren’t being sufficiently well remunerated. Even a cursory review of the scandal involving the British House of Commons and House of Lords will show examples of blatant and fraudulent abuse of expense accounts leading to imprisonment and in Mr. Harris’ words, “hundreds of careers ending in ignominy.” The crisis of confidence, even toward a newly spending transparent parliament continues says Harris.
Simson has faith in the honesty of most of her former colleagues and current members of parliament and the Senate saying, “I agree that undoubtedly the issue with a vast majority of MPs is not a matter of having played fast and loose with taxpayers money to their personal financial advantage.” Nevertheless, this courageous former member of parliament set her personal accountability bar far higher than political parties and MPs were willing meet. For doing so Simson allows that not only was she punished by the Liberal Party, but also shunned by members of all parties.
Not long ago, then federal Auditor General Sheila Fraser expressed interest in gaining access to parliamentary expense spending information. The Auditor Generalwas rebuffed. In the words of then Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, “the Auditor General serves at the pleasure of parliament.”
Political parties as well as individual MPs and senators had best review numbers from the the Canadian Press Harris-Decima poll and remember it is they who serve at the pleasure of the people of Canada. Perhaps our Canadian parliamentarians may also consider following advice from Tom Harris, “if you have misspent on expenses be public about it now. It is impossible, in the age of the Internet to keep such information secret.”
Roy Green is host of The Roy Green Show, a national program heard weekends on Corus Radio. Follow Roy on Twitter @theRoyGreenShow.