As she unveiled her new cabinet, Premier Christy Clark promised a “line-by-line” review of government spending to deliver a balanced budget this year.
Statements such as this would have more credibility if politicians subjected their own personal spending to the same scrutiny. That’s still not happening in B.C.
Expense accountability has come a long way in the last year, thanks mainly to the work of now-departed Auditor General John Doyle, who swung the cobweb-covered door open on B.C.’s secretive Legislative Assembly Management Committee. Chaired by the speaker and run by senior MLAs from both parties, the committee had been doing pretty much whatever it wanted with MLAs’ own expenses.
Doyle’s audit found that MLA credit card bills were being paid without receipts, part of a lax accounting system that included inaccurate bank records and inadequate management of the legislature gift shop and dining room. The operating budget of the legislature and constituencies runs to more than $60 million a year.
Now-retired speaker Bill Barisoff asked the auditor to give a pass to the $119,000 annual allowance for each of the 85 constituency offices. Transfer amounts and payroll expenses were verified, but constituency expenses were not, likely because these records weren’t kept either.
I’m not suggesting that there has been any misuse of public funds. The point is we don’t know, and the notion of an “honour system” for politicians’ expenses has become unacceptable.
A similar toxic tale has been unfolding in the Senate in Ottawa. It has its own secretive committee called the Board of Internal Economy, which was forced into the open after trying to sweep Senator Mike Duffy’s housing claims under the red rug of the Senate chamber.
Duffy has lived in Ottawa for decades, first as a TV host and then senator, but he decided the rules were loose enough that he could claim his summer place in Prince Edward Island as his principal residence. An audit has also found he was claiming living expenses in Ottawa while campaigning for the Conservatives back east. It turns out the key ingredient in an honour system is honour.
This mess goes back more than a century in B.C. and Canada, and has its roots in the British Parliament, where MPs and Lords had a system of claiming all sorts of expenses, including construction of a “duck house” and maintenance of the moat around an Honourable Member’s castle.
Many years ago, British MPs convinced themselves that they were underpaid, and rather than create a public fuss by giving themselves a big raise, they would be able to top it up by claiming up to 250 pounds at a time without receipts. Cheers!
You can imagine how well that worked out. As one observer put it, the system was not only open to abuse, it was actually designed for it.
Here in B.C., the next step is obvious. If you go to the website of Alberta Premier Alison Redford, you can easily find the link to her detailed expense reports, itemized for travel, meals, hotel rooms and so forth. Alberta cabinet ministers provide the same disclosure.
B.C. cabinet ministers’ travel expenses are now reported, but only as an occasional lump sum.
As a result of Doyle’s revelations last summer, B.C.’s Legislative Assembly Management Committee now meets in public, with transcripts of proceedings available. But MLA expenses are still not itemized. Total expenditures are being reported on a quarterly basis, but with no detail to explain why some MLAs have much higher totals than others.
It’s time to sweep out the cobwebs.
Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press and BCLocalnews.com