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Why Can't I Know Where My Taxes Are Going in Victoria?

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In the turtle derby of politician transparency, Ottawa has pulled ahead of Victoria by a nose -- but neither government should be congratulated for their lackluster effort.

Last week, the federal government released the long-anticipated auditor general's report into parliamentary spending. The report, based on a very tiny sample, showed that MPs and senators were violating their own documentation and contracting rules, while spending millions of tax dollars.

Parliamentarians had tied the hands of the auditor general, preventing an in-depth value audit of MP and senator spending. Only 284 of 85,000 annual transactions were reviewed, but the auditor general still found documentation errors in five per cent of MP expense claims. Extrapolated across 308 MPs, that means $1.8 million in improperly documented reimbursements, a significant concern for taxpayers.

On top of that, 41 of 59 procurement contracts checked by the auditor general found "weaknesses" and "deficiencies" in the process, including missing documentation, lack of signatures and lack of qualification by some winning bidders. Taxpayers footing the bill for all of this spending deserve more diligence from their elected officials.

Despite the shortcomings, at least Ottawa released the report. The B.C. government is still sitting on their own provincial report into almost $70 million of annual spending at the legislature. The report has been held back for nine months and there is no announced timeline for its release.

The B.C. Liberals and NDP have both proven to be massive disappointments in revealing how MLAs spend our money. When spending scandals rocked U.K. and Nova Scotia taxpayers with tales of politicians expensing moat dredging and espresso machines, British Columbians demanded answers. Were our MLAs and MPs spending tax dollars efficiently and effectively? Is everything on the up and up? Could that happen here?

We still don't know. Not only has the auditor general's report been hidden away, a promise that MLAs would release their spending by fall of 2010 has fallen by the wayside, locked by the all-party Legislative Assembly Management Committee.

MLAs have access to a lot of taxpayer money. On top of their salaries, MLAs can claim up to $19,000 per year for living expenses, $11,580 for in-constituency travel costs, $61 a day for meals while in Victoria and an annual constituency office allowance of $119,000.00 (in addition to office space leases). Plus there are travel expenses charged back to taxpayers. It all adds up.

Individual MPs and MLAs should forget all of the procedural party games and follow the lead of independent MLA Bob Simpson (Cariboo North). Simpson posts weekly expense reports to his website. It doesn't take much work -- he simply puts up the expense form that he files with the legislature. It's a higher level of accountability, done voluntarily and proactively.

Even better, our politicians could follow the example of Toronto City Hall -- the national gold standard in political expense accountability. Toronto city councillors publish online every receipt from every expense for all to see. Because of this transparency, the old political adage, "Would I be comfortable seeing this on the front page?" has moved from abstract to likely, and strongly influences political spending habits.

Unfortunately, the question we are left with in B.C. right now is: "Why aren't our MLAs comfortable seeing this audit on the front page?" Until they release the audit and details of their expenses, we will be left to wonder.