OTTAWA — Opposition parties accused Stephen Harper’s government of spying on its own MPs and being poor money managers Thursday after The Huffington Post Canada revealed Conservatives had spent $23 million on media monitoring in two years — including millions to track their own backbench MPs.
“Instead of helping young people and middle class families, the Conservatives are wasting more than $3,000 a day of taxpayers’ money to spy on their own MPs,” Liberal House leader Dominic LeBlanc said in the House of Commons.
NDP Treasury Board critic Mathieu Ravignat questioned how the Conservatives were unable to trace billions in spending but were champions of keeping a close eye on their own MPS.
“We now know that they are pushing this to the point of wasting millions of taxpayers’ dollars monitoring the press coverage of their own backbench MPs,” Ravignat said. “It’s ridiculous.”
A HuffPost analysis of records tabled in the House of Commons this week shows taxpayers picked up the $2.4-million tab for media monitoring over a two-year period at the Privy Council Office (PCO), the prime minister’s department, which included as search terms the names of 65 backbench MPs — individuals with no parliamentary secretary or ministerial duties.
Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose defended the government’s use of media monitoring services saying opposition parties use them as well.
“We do want to be aware of all of the media reporting about our members of Parliament because we are very proud of the work that they are doing,” Ambrose told MPs. “They appear in many articles across the media, doing excellent work on behalf of the government, and we are happy to receive those clippings.”
NDP MP Charlie Angus told reporters the Tories are probably keeping tabs on their backbench because these are the MPs causing the prime minister “a great deal of trouble.”
“They’re certainly not following the party line. They’re running off on tangents all the time. So obviously the Prime Minister’s Office is trying to keep tabs on their behaviour,” he said.
But if Harper wants to do that, Angus suggested, the Conservative party should foot the bill, not taxpayers.
“If the party wants to do that, the party can do that certainly. Google search doesn’t cost anything, I can tell you that much,” he said.
Liberal MP Joyce Murray suggested the federal government should hire a student to help teach Tories how to use Google Alerts — a free service that allows anyone to track online media stories with any desired search terms.
PCO spokesman Raymond Rivet told HuffPost that the department uses a number of media monitoring tools “including alerts.”
He said the federal government uses external supplies to “take advantage of new technologies and approaches to media monitoring.”
The prime minister’s spokesman Andrew MacDougall told HuffPost PCO tracks the coverage of their backbench MPs because they make announcements on behalf of the government all the time. “Of course the government wants to know what kind of coverage gets generated from those announcements,” he said.
On Thursday, many MPs — including those in opposition — contacted The Huffington Post to enquire if they were on the list of names being tracked. The PCO said Wednesday it intended to monitor all Conservative backbench MPs, but 37 MPs were left off.
Several who were omitted weren’t sure whether to be pleased or hurt that they had not been included.
“I’m a little surprised to hear that I’m flying under their radar,” outspoken Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber told HuffPost. “I guess I’ll have to up my game a little!”
Conservative backbencher Jay Aspin, who was left off the list of names and search terms, hypothesized the government must like what he’s saying.
“I don’t know why I am not on the list. Maybe they can trust what I say?” he told HuffPost.
Several Tory backbenchers contacted Wednesday expressed shock and surprise that they were being monitored by their leadership.
“I honestly don’t know anything about this at all,” said Barrie, Ont., Conservative MP Patrick Brown, whose name was on the list. “Governments have done media monitoring for years to track what issues are relevant but I am not sure why I would be followed or tracked.”
On Thursday, NDP House leader Nathan Cullen said the Conservatives’ “love for control of everything and everyone” had gone too far.
“One would think that law-abiding citizens like my friend from Barrie should not have to worry about being spied on by his own government,” he said.
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