As the Harper government braces itself for a steady drip of damaging details as the Senate expenses scandal winds its way through the courts, it may find itself rueing the day it abandoned one of its key promises in the 2006 election campaign.
That promise — to update the Access to Information Act — is something that Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault is lobbying hard for the government to follow through on.
"The promise has not been kept," Legault said in interview with host Susan Lunn on CBC Radio's The House. "People would think twice about how they spend taxpayers' money when they know taxpayers have access to the details of those expenses."
An update to the act — which came into effect 30 years ago last week — is long overdue, and Legault thinks most Canadians would be surprised to learn that the act doesn't cover all institutions that spend taxpayers' money, including Parliament.
"Canadians should have access to the documents that substantiate expenses that are being expended by parliamentarians," says Legault. "When that is the case, it actually acts as a deterent on behaviour. That's what we've seen over the years, not only in Canada but internationally in terms of having institutions covered by the act."
Canada ranked 55th
The Access to Information Act was a groundbreaking piece of legislation in its day, but today, according to a ranking by the Centre for Law and Democracy, Canada ranks a lowly 55th out of 93 nations regarding access legislation. Legault has recently undertaken a review of the act, something done twice since its inception to no effect.
In the fall, she'll make recommendations to Parliament and it's her hope that the Conservative government, whose commitment to openness and transparency meets mixed reviews, will strenghten the act.
Key changes that Legault wants to see brought in include bringing all institutions that spend taxpayers' money under its umbrella. She also wants to be granted order-making powers. Those powers would give her office more teeth in demanding that government departments comply with orders to hand over requested documents.
Under today's legislation, it's often the Federal Court that is pulled into the process to make departments comply with requests, a process that is too costly for many to pursue.
"Access delayed is access denied," Legault says. "We live in a 24-hour news cycle. Of course when access is delayed it makes a huge difference to the strength, power and relevance of the information in terms of holding our institutions accountable."
Listen to the full interview with Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault on CBC Radio's The House.
Also on HuffPost:
Pamela Wallin, at Tory senator from Saskatchewan, also found her expense claims under close scrutiny in Februrary when it was revealed <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/02/13/pamela-wallin-travel-expenses-harper_n_2680229.html" target="_blank">she billed taxpayers $142,190.26 for trips between March 1, 2011, and Feb. 29, 2012</a>. But only $10,551.99 of her expenses were related to travel between Ottawa and Saskatchewan, while the remaining $131,638.27 was filed under "Other." Questions were also raised about whether or not she satisfied the residency requirement needed to represent Saskatchewan in the Upper Chamber. Wallin split her time between Toronto and New York prior to being named a senator in 2008, but <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/02/08/senate-residency-pamela-wallin-duffy_n_2648325.html" target="_blank">does own a plot of land in the province and two properties with family members.</a> <em>With files from CP</em>
Patrick Brazeau first came under fire in December of 2012 amid reports he was using <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/02/08/patrick-brazeau-charges-sexual-assault_n_2643606.html?utm_hp_ref=patrick-brazeau" target="_blank">his former father-in-law's address </a>in Maniwaki, Que., to claim a Senate housing allowance, while actually living in Gatineau, just across the river from Parliament Hill. The Senate Board of Internal Economy subsequently asked an auditor to look at Brazeau's residency claims and expenses. In early February, Brazeau was arrested and charged with <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/02/08/patrick-brazeau-charges-sexual-assault_n_2643606.html?utm_hp_ref=patrick-brazeau" target="_blank">assault and sexual assault </a>after a heated argument with his girlfriend turned violent. The charges promptly got Brazeau turfed from the Conservative caucus. On February 12, Brazeau was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/02/12/canadians-growing-ever-we_n_2667332.html" target="_blank">suspended indefinitely </a>from the Upper Chamber. <em>With files from CP</em>
Conservative Mike Duffy also courted controversy over his housing allowance. The P.E.I. senator <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/02/22/mike-duffy-paying-back-money_n_2744800.html" target="_blank">claimed his cottage in Cavendish as his primary residence</a> and his long-time in home in Kanata, a suburb of Ottawa, as a secondary residence for which he collected $33,000 in living allowances he since 2010. While always maintaining he was entitled to the compensation, Duffy <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/02/22/mike-duffy-paying-back-money_n_2744800.html" target="_blank">vowed on February 22 to repay the money</a>. He blamed the entire issue on confusing and vague Senate paperwork. <em>With files from CP</em>
Pierre-Hughes Boisvenu, a Conservative senator from Quebec, came under fire in early March when it was revealed <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/03/03/pierre-hugues-boisvenu-senate_n_2803052.html?utm_hp_ref=pierre-boisvenu" target="_blank">he collected a housing allowance of $20,000 despite living little more than a drive across a bridge from Parliament.</a> Boisvenu claimed his primary residence was in Sherbrooke, but sources said he had been staying at his secondary residence in Gatineau since separating from his wife in February, 2012. Boisvenu was then forced to admit in March that he had been <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/03/26/pierre-boisvenu-affair_n_2957596.html" target="_blank">carrying on a relationship with an aide, Isabelle Lapointe</a>. The Senate ethics officer had told him last year that he couldn't have his girlfriend on the office payroll but Boisvenu ignored the warning for months. The two have since split up and Lapointe is now working elsewhere. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/03/26/pierre-boisvenu-affair_n_2957596.html" target="_blank">Boisvenu has repaid the $900 stipend he collected while living with Lapointe for three months near Ottawa.</a> <em>With files from CP</em>
Liberal senator Mac Harb also had his expenses audited after it was discovered that he claimed <a href="http://metronews.ca/news/canada/560000/senate-controversy-senator-mac-harbs-home-in-the-spotlight/" target="_blank">about $40,212 in living expenses for a secondary residence in Ottawa from Nov. 30, 2010 to Nov. 30, 2012</a>. Harb, a former Ottawa MP, claims his primary residence is <a href="http://www.ctvnews.ca/politics/senator-harb-rarely-seen-in-area-he-calls-home-neighbours-1.1198184" target="_blank">a bungalow in the tiny village of Westmeath</a>, but neighbours claim that nobody lives there year-round and that it is basically a cottage.
UP NEXT: The Many Faces Of Pamela Wallin
UP NEXT: Twitter Users Unhappy With Wallin