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Billion Dollar Boondoggle? Hardly.

The Liberals and NDP continue to harp on the costs of the G8 and G20 summits. Admittedly it’s quite a bill and whether or not there will be value for the amount spent will wait until after the summits are over.

Personally I think summits of this type are a huge waste. A waste of a leader’s time, staff time, the time of law enforcement officials, our military and many others who make these summits work. All of this of course comes with a hefty price tag.

For the most part various government officials representing all the countries spend months seeking common ground on key issues. What remains is the final blessing of the leaders at the summit and the final official communiqué and group photo op.

Is that worth a billion dollars, I don’t think so. With the technology available today, other solutions such as video conferencing are available. Another solution is to put strict limits on the size of the delegations. Do you really need more than 10 or so staff and bureaucrats to represent your country’s interests?

The problem for the government is two fold. If the summits go off without a hitch everyone will feel the money was wasted because there weren’t any incidents to justify the cost. If something serious happens, then they will still be blamed for being unable to stop it while having spent that much money. Essentially a lose-lose scenario.

In the mean time, opposition researchers will have a field day drawing up lists of important items that the billion dollars could have or should have been spent on. What you add to that list is only limited by the imagination of the researchers.

Fortunately, most voters will have made up their mind in the first couple of days news coverage and so far I haven’t met anyone, not even a conservative who is happy with the amount spent. At this stage of the game people are tuning out when the topic comes up. The opposition can go after this every day if they want too, but how many voters are still listening?

The government was wise to welcome Sheila Fraser’s decision to audit these summits. It will be most interesting to see her conclusions as to whether or not the expenses were justified and provided value for money spent.


Blowing in the wind

Ignatieff shifts like sand blowing in the wind when it comes to the Auditor General auditing MPs books.

While publicly stating that the Board of Internal economy should meet with Sheila Fraser to resolve the audit issue, we learn that internally, Iggy is asking his MPs not to be transparent and to refrain from posting their accounts and spending online. (Globe and Mail, May 27, 2010)

One position for the media and public, and a different one for his own MPs

Could Iggy be practicing a “culture of deceit?”

Canadians hear him say the government must be open, transparent and accountable. Liberal MPs are told; don’t post your numbers on your web site.

Why shouldn’t they? If they choose to be open and accountable, what is wrong with that? He should be congratulating them.

Why the double speak? It’s a simple issue. Either you are in favour or against letting the Auditor General look at MPs books. Admittedly Fraser only wants to do a few samples and not audit all MPs just yet. But what Iggy and quite a few others must fear is that should she find a problem, she may come back and ask for a full audit.

We know Iggy doesn’t think restaurant receipts need to be looked at, the question is why? I do remember a Liberal minister who got into quite a bit of hot water for a very expensive $207 pizza dinner for three people. Is Iggy trying to hide something that he doesn’t want Canadians to see?

Let’s look at Iggy's position on the audit:

1. A bad idea: "I understand what Canadians are saying. They want accountability and transparency, but I don't think they want us to be going through our receipts for this meal and that meal" (May 19, 2010)

2. A good idea: "What I mean is, it's important Canadians know the money we spent is honestly accounted for, and that's the kind of solution that we need to look for.” (May 19, 2010)


3. A bad idea: "There is accountability that is in itself a waste of public money. Do you understand what I am saying?"

A good idea:” is "entirely in favour" of Fraser making sure the financial controls are "good and right and serving Canadians." (May 26, 2010)

5. A bad idea: Iggy asks Liberal MPs not to post their expenses online. (May 26, 2010)

Canadians want to know where the Liberal leader stands. Unfortunately what you learn depends on the time of day and who he is speaking too.






Another show down looms

The recent announcement by Jay Hill, the Government House Leader, that ministerial staffers will no longer appear before committees, opens up a Pandora’s Box of potential issues.

The first issue of course is who is supreme? Is it Parliament as represented by its MPs on committees or is it the Prime Minister’s Office? Make no doubt about it, if they didn’t dream this policy up, PMO would have to sign off on this one.

Milliken’s ruling on the detainee documents would support the supremacy of Parliament. Committees have traditionally been masters of their own destiny and called whoever they wished to testify. Taking away that right is a huge issue.

If ministers are now to take full responsibility for their staffs and departments then every single mistake will now land on their doorstep. True responsible government would see minister’s take full responsibility for everything in their department. Are they only taking responsibility for their office or for the entire department? It was Jay Hill who said ““Ministers are individually and collectively responsible to the House of Commons for the policies, programs and activities of the Government.” So which is it?

If Dimitri Soudas is called as a witness and under these guidelines refuses to appear, his minister is the Prime Minister. Soudas reports to the PM, not John Baird or anyone else other than Guy Giorno. This would mean the PM is now responsible for appearing and representing some 100 plus staff. That’s insane.

If as happens recently Baird shows up instead of the PM, does this mean that PMO can pick whomever they want to show up at committee on behalf of a staffer. It flies against the very principles of the new decision on ministerial responsibility.

What about the individual staffer who has been accused rightly or wrongly by committee members? Do they not have the right to defend themselves? Under this system the answer would be no. Your proxy would have to defend you. If you were a staffer, wouldn’t that make you all warm and fuzzy?

Committees have several rarely used powers such as the right to subpoena individuals. If a staffer is subpoenaed, they are placed in greater jeopardy than if they simply went and got it over with.

What happens to former staff if issues are uncovered years later? Are they protected by the minister of the day who could even be from a different party? Or is this just a convenience for current staff? Who will be paying the legal bills of past and present staff subpoenaed by a committee?

Committees also have a responsibility to the people of Canada. When they become so partisan that they cease to work effectively, they are doing the country a disservice. It’s interesting to note that two of the worse examples of extreme partisanship have been at the Ethics Committee chaired by Paul Szabo. The Mulroney-Schreiber hears were one of the worse cases seen to date. As Chair Szabo went way overboard in supporting Schreiber to the point where any sense of balance went out the window and it began to look like a kangaroo court. That charade cost the taxpayers at least two million dollars for Mulroney’s legal fees and nightly newscasts of the daily goings on certainly helped lower public confidence in committee work.

Committees certainly have the right to investigate issues that they deem important, and so they should. But when they become too partisan, they become dysfunctional and then they serve little purpose other than to give the media some good clips and quotes. As Chair, Szabo can rule on the types of questions, their focus and maintain decorum if he so chooses. One can certainly question Szabo’s will or maybe it’s ability, to do so. Jay Hill was right when he referred to hostile committees.

By the time his latest investigation finishes getting legal opinions; subpoenaing individuals etc, how many more millions will this cost the taxpayer yet again?  As Chair Szabo has a responsibility to the public and to the whole committee, not just to his partisans and other opposition MPs.  Politically, the Liberals should be careful what they seek now and try to enforce now, as one day they may be on the receiving end.

And so another showdown looms. What is the bet that this also goes to the Speaker for another ruling. Meanwhile Canadians look away in disgust at all the goings on and politicians wring their hands and wonder why voters have given up on Parliament.




Pressure mounts on MPs

While MPs of all parties continue to stonewall the public on the Auditor General’s request to audit Parliament, pressure continues to mount on them.

Most MPs still don’t get it. This is one issue the public can understand and no amount of spin from our MPs or their spokespersons will work. Canadians want to know that the money we entrust to MPs is spent wisely. That’s it pure and simple.

Most Conservative MPs stick to the talk points they were issued on this topic. That alone is interesting as there is certain validity for talk points on bills, party platform etc, where caucus solidarity is important. But this is not about government policy. This is about an MPs personal office budget and who audits it. Conservative MPs should see the centre issuing talk points as an intrusion into an area for which they alone are responsible.

Faced with the public backlash, Jack Layton has gone silent. Now, when has anyone known Jack to walk away from a microphone? He hasn’t even issued a release recently on this subject. The NDP is beginning to shift though as the following comments highlight:

Timmins-James Bay NDP MP Charlie Angus said “I think we need to work something out with the Auditor-General.”

Winnipeg NDP MP Pat Martin “It goes against everything I stand for, we’re getting the shit kicked out of us all.”

To his credit, Hill has shifted his position slightly: "There's an open door. She can come back and discuss this with us.”

As for the Liberals, most of them have gone to ground, the exception being a couple of newer MPs, who have posted the details of their budgets online.

Ignatieff has shifted a bit too. In his latest version of spin on this subject he waffled and said: “What I support is Sheila Fraser, the Auditor General, coming to the Board of Internal Economy and talking about what she wants to do and then taking it from there.”

And the BLOC which is supposed to be the un-Canadian party remains the only one that has clearly said they have no problem with an audit and letting Canadians see the result. Strange world we live in, but then what can you expect when so many hysterical Canadians want proof that the money we entrust to MPs is accurately accounted for.

As Jay hill said: "We are held accountable. It's called an election."

Damn right, and voters won’t forget that either.


MPs are feeling the heat

MPs from all parties are really feeling the heat from voters over the refusal of the Board of Internal Economy to open MPs books to an audit by Sheila Fraser. Cracks are starting to appear in the ranks of our MPs, as some are now suggesting the decision should be reviewed.

To illustrate this change in attitude, you may recall, a month ago Liberal MP and Board of Internal Economy member Marcel Proulx, who, when asked why the committee wouldn't disclose how taxpayer dollars were spent, replied: "Oh, well, it's always been like that, and there's no intention of opening it.”

He may yet regret that little bit of arrogance. Compare Proulx’s comments with that of Peter Stoffer (NDP) who said yesterday:

"Every single one of my constituents that has contacted me, not one has said, ‘Oh, sure, keep it secret, don't let the auditor general around.' No. Every single one has been unanimous in saying let the auditor general do her work."

"I think transparency and openness would not be a bad thing. So my advice to the board, if I was giving it to them, is they should work with the auditor general to allow her to do what she needs to do . . . so the public has confidence in what we're doing."

In addition, Michelle Simson, a first-term Liberal MP from Toronto, and Siobhan Coady, a Liberal from Newfoundland, are already posting details about their office budgets online.

It is interesting how newer MPs don’t mind being open and accountable. It must be because they haven’t yet adopted or given in to the sense of entitlement displayed by some of their other colleagues on the Hill.

Most MPs are careful about how they spent their office budgets and would have nothing to fear from an audit. Why then this intransience? Compare the position of the MPs with what these same MPs expect of cabinet ministers.

Every single staffer working for a minister has all of their ministerial related expenses posted online. Every cabinet minister does as well. If MPs believe openness and accountability must apply to ministers and staff, why not to themselves as well?

This is a true nonpartisan issue as it concerns all MPs from all parties. The public needs to keep up the pressure. MPs are not entitled to our money, they are entrusted with it. As such we have a right to know how they spend it.