12/28/2013 05:00 EST | Updated 02/26/2014 05:59 EST

A Year Of Hot Air On MPs' And Senators' Expenses

Politicians' expenses are usually a sleeper issue because so little is known about travel and housing claims that are regulated in secret sessions by the politicians themselves.

But this year, the veil on politicians' expenses was pulled back - a bit - in what became the top Ottawa story of 2013: the gross abuse of public money by a few senators.

The year began with the revelation of Senator Mike Duffy's habit of claiming expenses for living in his long-time Ottawa home. It drew to a crescendo with the spectacle of  Duffy and three other senators — Patrick Brazeau, Pamela Wallin and Mac Harb — suspended or retired and under an RCMP microscope over their inappropriate travel and housing claims.

The scandal might have been the reason for MPs unanimously voting in what senators call "the other place" — the House of Commons — to consider replacing their own secretive administrative closed-shop with an independent body to monitor their expenses.

Suddenly, transparency for expense accounts was an urgent issue.

But by year's end, almost nothing has changed.

One small step, but little detail

There was one bit of movement: Liberal MPs and senators, under orders from new leader Justin Trudeau, began posting online their travel and hospitality spending, modelled on cabinet ministers' proactive disclosure, a step in the right direction to be sure, but with little detail. Conservatives say they will follow suit.

MPs already post expenses in broad categories covering their office budgets, printing, hospitality costs and use of travel points, but again, with almost no detail.

Yet in June, when the Senate expense scandal was near a boiling point, it seemed the House of Commons was ready to slay its own dragon. The NDP persuaded all MPs to turned their attention towards replacing their closed-door committee for monitoring expenses known as the board of internal economy. The board, or BOIE, is made up of MPs from each party.

The mission was to find some independent body to scrutinize and regulate MPs' expenses

In special hearings, MPs listened to Auditor General Michael Ferguson urge them to allow random audits, "at my discretion," as he put it, of their expenses.

MPs also heard from John Sills of IPSA, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority in the U.K., set up in 2009 after a scandal revealed some British MPs were charging the public for expenses such as moat-cleaning, or were claiming second homes a few miles from their main homes, and then flipping them or renting them out.

Sills explained that IPSA, an organization independent of Parliament, approves MPs' expenses and sets members' pay and pensions. Then it publishes the information — all of it.

The 'exam question'

Some Conservative MPs asked Sills if the same system were adopted here, wouldn't parliamentary staff just have to move over to a new body modelled on IPSA and "basically replicate what they do now under a different organization."

Sills replied that query was what he always called "the exam question." And, he added, "Can you be truly independent if you're in-house?"

In the end, the Conservative majority on the committee recommended keeping the status quo.

MPs will continue having the final, undisclosed word on expenses. Meetings will be held in camera. The Auditor General was shown the door.

Not all MPs went along with preserving the secretive board of internal economy, or shutting out the Auditor General.  The Liberals agreed the board should continue to monitor MP expenses, but asked for an independent commissioner to set salaries and pensions. The NDP dissented, holding out for an independent body.

Neither suggestion was adopted.

Bigger steps taken in the Senate

In the Senate, with members wincing from being viewed as scandal-ridden and way too clubby, bigger steps were taken.

Most significantly, the Senate invited the Auditor General to conduct an audit of every senators' expenses. His first report is possibly a year or more away, but for some senators, inevitably, the iceman cometh.

No such fate awaits MPs. As as the clerk of the House of Commons, Audrey O'Brien, reminded the committee debating opening up expenses, MPs have never been audited by the Auditor General. It's "something members have strongly resisted," she testified.

As the year ends, a public wanting to know what true transparency about expenses looks like is left to read the private websites of Conservative senators Doug Black, Bob Runciman and Linda Frum, or Green Party Leader Elizabeth May. These four have decided to publish details of every public penny they spend.

Readers will find that Frum doesn't charge for meals, that Black paid $5.50 for parking, that May has posted more than 300 pages of scanned receipts for everything from postage stamps to office cleaners.

Otherwise, it seems the matter of politicians' expenses has been put back in the closet until the next scandal.

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