IN THE NEWS ~ NDP to push Libs and Conservatives on AG audits of MP expenses

The New Democratic Party is going to use every Parliamentary tool at its disposal, including Opposition day motions, to push the Conservatives and Liberals to let the auditor general oversee and audit MP expenses, even from previous years.

"Stay tuned, that's our message," NDP caucus chair Peter Julian (Burnaby-New Westminster, B.C.) told The Hill Times last week.

"We're going to use every tool we can and stay tuned in terms of when we choose to use . They're not going away and eventually we're going to force Mr. Harper and Mr. Trudeau to accept that the auditor general should have jurisdiction over MPs' expenses."

Mr. Julian declined to share the exact strategy of how his party is going to achieve its goal.

MPs voted unanimously in favour of a Liberal-backed supply day motion on March 5 instructing the House of Commons administration to publicly release information about travel and hospitality expenses on a regular basis effective April 1, 2014. Under the House of Commons procedure, only one amendment can be made to the opposition day motions and the sponsor of the motion has to agree with the amendment.

The Liberal motion did not have a start date to make MPs' expenses public. Before the NDP proposed to amend the motion to give the auditor general the authority to monitor and audit all House spending, including MPs' expenses, the Conservatives proposed the date of April 1 as the start date for disclosure in the Liberal motion.

Mr. Julian accused both the Liberals and the Conservatives of deliberately blocking the NDP amendment because they don't want the auditor general to oversee and audit their expenses. He explained that although the NDP amendment contained no explicit indication that the auditor general could go back and audit MPs' expenses from previous years, it would have allowed him to do so.

"The auditor general should have jurisdiction. If he has jurisdiction, the auditor general could then decide whether he wants to go backwards in time or not," Mr. Julian said, adding that the NDP will also keep pushing for the abolition of the Board of Internal Economy and ask all parties to hand over all the authority to the auditor general so that he could oversee and audit MP and House of Commons expenses.

A day before the Liberal motion was passed, Green Party leader Elizabeth May (Saanich-Gulf Islands, B.C.) tried to get unanimous consent from her House colleagues to invite the auditor general to conduct a comprehensive audit of MPs', Cabinet ministers' and Prime Minister's Office expenses.

She emailed a copy of her motion to all parties to seek their support in advance but she said only the Bloc Québécois responded.

If a party does not have 12 MPs in its Parliamentary caucus, MPs from that party need unanimous consent of the House to table a motion.

When Ms. May rose in the House to seek unanimous consent, she was shouted down with shouts of "No" even before she had completed reading her motion. The shouts came mostly from the Conservative side.

"I was actually grateful to the Speaker that he allowed me to continue reading the whole motion because people started shouting 'no' from the Conservative benches, many of them the minute I started to read my motion," she said.

"My sense was that I didn't hear any 'Nos' from the opposition benches but I don't know that the Liberals and the NDP were officially prepared to support my motion either."

Mr. Julian said that while they may not have given her a positive response in advance when she emailed the motion, he and his colleagues did give their consent when she rose in the House.

"Elizabeth May was looking into my eyes when she brought forward the motion. She heard me say 'Yes'," he said.

"I was taking the lead for the NDP caucus. She saw me nodding my head. She saw all the NDP MPs nodding their heads and saying 'Yes.'"

The Liberal House leader and Liberal Party leader's office did not respond to The Hill Times requests for interviews for this article.

Ms. May said that the auditor general should be invited to audit the MPs' expenses in the interest of transparency and to reassure Canadians that their elected representatives are not misspending their money.

"Transparency is a good thing. It's a matter of good governance and if we're going to have the auditor general do an audit of the Senate, how is it defensible that the House of Commons to a different standard. We're elected," said Ms. May.

"The auditor general has judgment and he's not going to be making a mountain out of a mole hill. The auditor general wants to know that the Canadian public is getting value for money."

The current mandate of the auditor general does not allow him to initiate an audit of either House of Parliament on his own. He can conduct an audit of the House of Commons and the Senate only if invited.

The last time the auditor general conducted an audit on the House was two years ago when only a small sample of MPs' expense claims were audited, which included a one-time audit of the financial administration of the Commons. That audit report found that 98.5 per cent of the claims reviewed were properly documented. The AG's audit of the Senate's financial administration in 2012 found a 94.8 per cent compliance rate. Before that, the last time the AG audited Parliament was more than 20 years ago.

When the Senate expenses scandal became public last year and revealed that some Conservative and Liberal Senators may have claimed fraudulent housing and travel expenses, the Senate's Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration Committee invited Mr. Ferguson to conduct a comprehensive audit of all Senators' expenses. Since then, three former Conservative-turned-Independent Senators-Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau-have been suspended until the end of this Parliamentary session and former Liberal Senator Mac Harb has resigned.

The RCMP is conducting an investigation into the alleged fraudulent housing and travel claims of these Senators. Last month, the RCMP formally charged Sen. Brazeau and Sen. Harb with one count each of fraud and breach of trust related to alleged fraudulent Senate expense claims. The RCMP also alleged the two defrauded taxpayers by claiming travel and living expenses that they were not entitled to.

Both Senators are scheduled to appear in court on March 17 and March 18, respectively.

The RCMP is also investigating the transaction between Nigel Wright, the Prime Minister's former chief of staff, and Sen. Duffy. Mr. Wright gave Sen. Duffy $90,000 to pay off his questionable Senate expense claims.

P.E.I. Liberal Senator Percy Downe tabled a motion in the Senate last month calling on his colleagues to urge MPs to invite the auditor general to conduct an audit of their expenses. He told The Hill Times at that time that conducting the Senate audit is only "half the job-less than half, actually," as the House budget is four times more than the Senate's.

Conservative MP Peter Goldring (Edmonton East, Alta.) disagreed that the auditor general should be allowed to audit MPs' expenses, arguing that the claims they file are carefully scrutinized by the House finance department. Unless there's evidence that the current system is not working, no audit by Mr. Ferguson is needed, he said.

"We're monitored on expenses and nothing we submit in our expenses goes through without scrutiny," Mr. Goldring said in an interview.

Chief Government Whip John Duncan (Vancouver Island North, B.C.) did not respond to an interview request last week but earlier this month he told The Hill Times that the system in place now is working appropriately, so no audit by the auditor general is needed in the House.

"We're proactively posting all our expenses as of last fall. If you go on our website, you'll see they're there and the House administration will be posting them starting in the next fiscal year, so we're in very good shape. So, no audit is needed," said Mr. Duncan.

arana@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

Online: http://www.hilltimes.com/news/news/2014/03/17/ndp-to-push-libs-and-conservatives-on-ag-audits-of-mp-expenses/37862