OTTAWA — Justin Trudeau’s first official policy announcement as Liberal leader, a plan to improve accountability of MPs and senators, was interrupted Wednesday by young Conservatives who chanted “Justin loves the status quo” and held signs parroting Tory attack ads that claim “Justin is in over his head.”
Trudeau pledged Wednesday to post online the travel and hospitality expenses of all his MPs, senators and staff starting this fall — part of a four-point plan to increase transparency in the Senate and the House of Commons. He made the announcement outside Parliament as a symbolic expression of openness.
But soon after he took to a podium near the Centennial Flame, Trudeau’s press conference was disrupted by placard-carrying protesters. The Liberal leader told reporters Conservatives were worried about the level of transparency and openness that Liberals “were serious about demonstrating.”
“They want to change the channel, they want to talk about anything else but we are going to talk about how we are restoring Canadians’ confidence in the Senate,” he said.
As first reported by The Huffington Post Canada, Trudeau’s four-point plan will give the public access to the expense claims filed by members of his caucus.
“Our reports are going to be put online, we are going to be very transparent about this approach and we are going to just start doing it and not wait for the others to do it,” Trudeau said. “We hope that the other parties will take on and agree to this level of transparency.”
Expenses and entitlements have been a hot topic in Ottawa following the Senate expense scandal that has rocked the upper chamber and landed four senators — Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, Patrick Brazeau and Mac Harb — in hot water after they allegedly expensed thousands of dollars in ineligible living and travel expenses.
Marjory LeBreton, the Conservative leader in the Senate, suggested Tuesday that senators should be subjected to those same proactive disclosure rules, which currently apply to cabinet ministers and senior bureaucrats. But LeBreton said the same wasn’t necessary in the House of Commons.
NDP house leader Nathan Cullen wouldn’t commit to the posting of MP expenses, saying the measure would be onerous on House of Commons administration, and that other options should be looked at. A senior NDP source said Trudeau is grandstanding and the New Democrats are upset the Liberals are not working with the other parties at the secretive Board of Internal Economy, which has already tasked the House administration to look at ways of increasing disclosure requirements for MP expenses.
The Liberals, however, believe MPs and senators can disclose their spending and expense details without involving House of Commons staff.
“We are going to spend the summer figuring out how we do it precisely but we are pretty confident that we can arrange our affairs to make that work,” a Liberal source said.
Trudeau also informed his caucus Wednesday that he wants all the Board of Internal Economy meetings public, unless sensitive matters are discussed, and said the party will table legislation that would make the committee that administers the House’s affairs more open. The Senate’s committee on Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration already holds part of their meetings in public.
“We are hoping that maybe by making this proposal, the government will be interested in bringing legislation themselves that would probably pass very swiftly. But if they don’t do that, we will introduce legislation to make that change,” a Liberal source said.
Trudeau also announced that he would support posting MPs and senators’ quarterly expense reports on the Parliament of Canada’s website in a format that allows Canadians and journalists to easily compare information in the database.
The last point of Trudeau’s four-point plan is to ensure a performance audit of the House and the Senate every three years.
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation's national director Gregory Thomas said that Trudeau deserves kudos for getting his caucus in line and being the first leader to champion more transparency in the Commons.
"He's the first federal leader to actually talk more openness and disclosure in the House of Commons, which is something that's got deafening silence from the prime minister and the official opposition on that topic, so that is a big step in the right direction," he said.
Still, Thomas said he would like to see MPs go a step further and post all their receipts and supporting documentation online.
Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia said he has no problem with the new requirements. "I can't see how interesting it will be but it's okay," he said after Trudeau had announced the changes in caucus.
Trudeau, who also had to fight over the sounds of a large yoga session on Parliament’s front lawn and nearby construction work, joked that the point of his press conference was to “highlight open Parliament” and his accessibility. Dozens of curious onlookers gathered for a glimpse of the Liberal leader, including several children who tried to take photos with their smartphones.
Following the Tory stunt, however, reporters were more interested in asking Trudeau about his position on the Senate. He repeated he wasn’t in favour of the status quo but believes that the selection process of senators needs to be revisited.
People shouldn’t be appointed to the Senate just because they are good party fundraisers, said Trudeau, pointing to Senators Pamela Wallin and Mike Duffy. However, he refused to rule out making Senate appointments if he was elected prime minister.
“We are looking at a number of different things on how we set up a more transparent, more independent process whereby senators would be recommended and selected,” he said.
Trudeau previously suggested that senators should be shortlisted for the upper chamber through a consultative process that resembles the one judges go through.