Tuesday, June 15, 2010

It's a win-win for Auditor-General Sheila Fraser and Canadian Taxpayers

Finally, the very secretive Board of Internal Economy relented today and agreed to allow Sheila Fraser, Canada's Auditor-General, to have a wee peak at their books. Here is the press release from the Board stating their new position on the audit. It is important to note that today's agreement does not include the Senate; Ms. Fraser will be making a formal request to examine their books soon, let's hope they do the right thing without having to be pushed.

For those of you that aren't aware, the Board is "...the governing body of the House of Commons...." which has the legal authority to administer the House, its budget and expenditures and salary scales for non-unionized employees of the House. Basically, in a nutshell, they control the books of the House of Commons.

Back in May, the Board basically told Ms. Fraser to "go fly a kite" when she suggested that she'd like to audit Parliamentary expenditures. Here's what the Board said back on May 13th, 2010:

"Following careful consideration, the Auditor General will not be invited to conduct a performance audit of the House of Commons. According to the Auditor General’s Act, the proposed audit would go beyond the scope of the Auditor General’s mandate, which allows her to audit government departments and various Crown agencies as identified in the Act, but does not include the legislative branch, which includes the House of Commons and its Administration."

That sounded like a firm no to me. Unfortunately, Canadian taxpayers felt otherwise; fully 85% of Canadians polled stated that they were concerned about their MPs' refusal to let Ms. Fraser audit their books despite the Board's reassurances that their books were audited.

Today's (June 15th, 2010) press release took a different tone, likely reflecting (for a change) what Canadians want from those they elect:

"Having considered the key points raised in that meeting, as well as the assurances provided by the Auditor General as to the process her Office would follow in doing the audit, the Board has decided to invite the Auditor General to undertake an audit of the House Administration and to grant her access to the House of Commons and its records."

Now that's more like it.

In looking through the Board's website, I found this interesting line:

"The Board of Internal Economy is committed to being transparent about the financial and operating matters of the House of Commons."

They should have added "...only when forced by public opinion".

Unfortunately, Ms. Fraser will only be spot-checking certain expenditures made by MPs and will only expand her audit to include all MPs if significant wrongdoing is found. As the rules stand now, any MP that is found in breach of the expenditure rules are forced to pay back the House, unfortunately, because the Board of Internal Economy meets in camera (in private), the identity of the offending MP is kept secret. Canadians had hoped that secrecy would not be an issue if Ms. Fraser had found irregularities, however, she has already stated that her report will not name names. That approach leaves MPs with little to fret over during their three month summer break. I would also rather that she was doing a full audit rather than a performance audit but at least this exercise will accomplish something.

For your information, here is the pdf file containing all of the major details about Members expenses for the fiscal year 2008 - 2009 from the Board of Internal Economy website which have, according to the Board, been audited by an independent accounting firm. At least with this document, we get a look at where some of the $583 million Parliamentary budget is spent. As well, the audit of the Financial Statements for the House of Commons for 2009 - 2010 is underway and will be posted to the Board's website when it is completed. It will be worth a look once it is released.

I think the whole exercise could have been avoided had legislation been in place that would require MPs to post their audited expenses on their government websites on an annual basis. Right now, three Liberal MPs are posting their expenses on their websites against the orders of Mr. Ignatieff; they are Michelle Simson, Rob Oliphant and Marlene Jennings. As a taxpayer, I for one would like to see legislation passed after the next general election that forces MPs to divulge how they are spending our money on a regular and readily available basis.

After the recent expense scandals in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, it is the least that our MPs could and should do for those of us who faithfully send our tax dollars to Ottawa. Despite their protestations that spending controls are in place, Canadians still deserve proof that there is no wrong-doing from a neutral third party like Ms. Fraser.

Our trust in our politicians is blind but it shouldn't be stupid too.

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