Access To Information Act: Would More Transparency From MPs Uncover Misspent Funds?
OTTAWA — Should you have the right to know how much your member of Parliament expensed yesterday for lunch? Or how they spent their housing allowance? Or what salaries they pay their staff?
Former Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe’s alleged misuse of his parliamentary budget to pay the salaries of people employed by his political party has led to growing calls for MPs to be included under the Access to Information Act — federal legislation that would force parliamentarians to open up their books and release internal documents.
Duff Conacher, the founding board member of Democracy Watch, said he believes Duceppe’s spending would have been uncovered if MPs were subject to the Access to Information program (ATIP).
“Definitely, the patterns that we have seen in England and Nova Scotia of some of them abusing their budgets and resources of their offices would have been seen at the federal level,” Conacher told The Huffington Post Canada.
“Right now MPs’ offices and budgets are ripe for abuse because the Access to Information Act does not apply and there is no disclosure ... through Auditor General audit of what they are spending their money on,” he added.
The Montreal newspaper La Presse reported last week that for years Duceppe used his parliamentary budget to pay the salaries of his party’s general manager and others employed to do work for the Bloc Quebecois.
Duceppe told La Presse he acted within the rules, but parliamentarians of all stripe have come out to say that it is very clear to them that the former Bloc leader breached protocol and should have known better.
If MPs were included in the Access to Information Act, Canadians would be able to find out what their representatives actually spend their money on, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation’s Gregory Thomas told HuffPost.
“(The House of Commons) just published tables showing many MPs spent six, seven, eight, $9,000 on hospitality in the last year. I don’t think anybody believes that part of an MP’s job is picking up the bar tabs,” he said.
“It’s public funds and if you want to use the public’s money then you have to tell the public what you are doing with the money.”
Parliamentarians should follow the lead of Toronto City councillors who post all their expenses, including receipts, online, Thomas argued. Expanding access laws to include MPs would just be the first step, he said.
“I think it’s inevitable” Thomas said. “I trust the public to demand it.”
NDP MP Linda Duncan said she wasn’t aware parliamentarians weren’t included under a law that allows the public to request any documents from government departments.
“To tell you the truth, I wasn’t aware that we weren’t covered, it probably should be something that should be looked into. I certainly have no reason to not be disclosing things that go on,” she said.
But some of her colleagues disagree.
Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre said he is open to having “full accountability and transparency” in the way MPs spend their money but he questioned what benefit subjecting members to the Access to Information law would add.
“Probably three-quarters of an MP’s budget goes to staff, another 10 to 15 per cent goes to office rent, so you would really be examining the remaining 10 to 15 per cent most of which is already public through reporting. So I’m curious, if someone were to propose to apply ATIP to an MP’s office, I’d like to know exactly what additional information they could acquire that is not already available to them, and so far I haven’t seen an example,” he said.
Some MPs suggested placing them under the Act would inundate their small offices with requests for documents, monopolizing their staff's time and preventing them from dealing with legislative work, constituency files or answering correspondence.
If MPs were subject to the Act, one Conservative MP told HuffPost, their offices would not only be flooded with requests from the public but from MPs themselves.
“If someone attacked you in the House, you’d swamp that damn bugger’s office with requests,” the member said.
NDP MP Jack Harris said he doesn’t think MPs should be subjected to the law because a lot of the work an MP does should remain confidential.
Above an beyond constituent files — which would likely be censored for release under the access program because of privacy laws — Harris argued parliamentarians straddle a gray zone of discussing on the one hand, public policy work and on the other, plotting partisan strategy and tactics that shouldn’t be released to the public.
While MPs know they shouldn’t pay political party staff from their budgets, allowing them to sit in on meetings and share information is perfectly normal and those discussions should be kept private, he said.
The Conservative Party’s director of political operation Jenni Byrne’s regular appearances at meetings with top PMO directors should be “expected,” Harris said, suggesting the NDP operates in a similar fashion.
“Sometimes it is difficult to sort out but obviously political parties are about political strategy and the Prime Minister’s Office is no different, I assume, than our office or the offices of (other) opposition parties,” Harris said.
“The political party makes decisions on how to spend its money and what campaigns to undertake and there is no doubt they talk to the people who are elected about that. But you know, there is a grey area,” he said.
Conacher, the former head of Democracy Watch, is sensitive to the concern and believes parliamentarians should be given a limited exemption under the Access law to confidentially carry out their partisan duties.
That would only be fair, argued Liberal MP Mauril Bélanger, since ministers’ offices and the Prime Minister’s Office are not covered under the Access to Information Act.
“If we want more transparency, I have no problem with that but it must apply equally to the executive wing of government not just the legislative branch,” he said.
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled last spring that ministers and the prime minister can’t be forced to release items such as their date books or private emails to their staff.
The court ruled that PM's office and those of the cabinet are separate from the bureaucratic departments they head and therefore were excluded under the law — a position that Bélanger completely disagrees with.
“In my opinion, when you look at Annex 1 (of the Act) ... ministries are included there. And if you look at the definition of a ministry, it includes a minister,” he said.
Bélanger said he personally wouldn’t be interested in reading communications between ministers’ offices but that some ministerial briefing notes and documents should be part of the public domain.
“Most of those (emails) deal with questions of strategy, questions of politics, what I’m interested in is substantial items such as research documents that are drafted in preparation for new laws, the strategy, a lot of that is excluded and I really disagree with that. But as far as details of correspondence between colleagues and all that, you know at some point, we need to be able to work,” he said.