OTTAWA - Conservative MPs pledged publicly Sunday not to let the upcoming prorogation of the House of Commons put an end to all-party efforts to reform the ongoing expense account abuses of Parliament.
The public commitment came after a Tory-chaired Commons committee opened up what was supposed to be an unusual closed-door meeting that was to study the need to shine a greater public light on the expenses of MPs and senators.
It also came after MPs from all parties said they got a blast on the summer barbecue circuit from voters in their ridings over the spending shenanigans of senators such as Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin. The Senate expense scandal has highlighted the need for greater transparency around the reporting of all politicians' expenses.
MPs from the Conservatives, NDP and Liberals were called back briefly to Parliament Hill on Sunday from their summer recess for what was supposed to be an in-camera meeting of the Commons Procedure and House Affairs Committee.
But a motion by the NDP to open up the session was unanimously approved by the committee.
And after about an hour of cordial procedural discussion, Conservative, NDP and Liberals on the committee agreed unanimously on another key point — that the government House leader should seek unanimous consent from all MPs to continue their work once the Commons reconvenes later this fall after prorogation.
That was significant because once Prime Minister Stephen Harper prorogues Parliament until sometime next month — the Commons was due to return next week — all government business, including the committee's study, would have been quashed.
The committee's vote Sunday doesn't change that rule, but it does publicly commit the Tories to hitting the reset button as quickly as possible on their work.
Moreover, Conservative committee chair Joe Preston said the committee's non-political clerks and other staffers would continue planning and research work on their upcoming hearings into the topic.
The committee committed to tabling a report by Dec. 2.
The reason for the sudden display of unanimity was made clear by MPs from all parties as they entered the meeting room — they all got an earful from angry constituents over the summer over the Senate expense scandal.
"Obviously, with recent events in the Senate this public is, I think, rightfully so clamouring for more transparency and accountability. They want to make sure that their taxpayers' dollars are being spent wisely and not abused," said Tom Lukiwski, a Conservative committee member.
"They've seen what appears to be some pretty flagrant abuses in the Senate with tax dollars and I think the public is rightfully outraged."
NDP and Liberal committee members concurred.
"Of course the public is outraged by the Duffy and Wallin affairs and all the scandals that have been happening to senators and some MPs as well," said New Democrat MP Nathan Cullen.
"If you allow the prime minister to change the channel, he'll just slip under the rug on this one."
An NDP motion that won unanimous approval in the dying hours of the last Parliament in June called for a committee process to examine transparency reforms, including MP expenses.
As he entered the meeting room, Cullen said he would call for the meeting to be opened so the debate could take place "in the full light of the public."
Moments after he spoke to reporters, the doors of the meeting room were thrown open.
Lukiwski said after the committee had adjourned that members voted unanimously to support Cullen's motion.
The sudden show of openness should not have been surprising given that the Conservatives have been dogged by the issue all summer.
Serious expense problems of three one-time Conservative senators — Duffy, Wallin and Patrick Brazeau — appointed by Harper and one former Liberal, Mac Harb, have dominated federal politics in Ottawa.
"You'd have to be deaf not to hear the response that we're getting from our constituents," said Liberal committee member Kevin Lamoureux.
But Lamoureux said he was disappointed by Sunday's outcome. He said the time to study the matter had long past, and that his party is taking concrete steps towards transparency in the immediate future.
He said that Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau would reveal the details next week of his promise that all of his MPs will post all their expenses in the same way cabinet ministers have since 2005.
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