Not any more

Stephen Harper flooded with vitriolic e-mail over MP expense audit – The Globe and Mail

In Canada on August 16, 2010 at 01:44

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s inbox was deluged in May with e-mails from citizens outraged that MPs wouldn’t allow the Auditor-General to scrutinize their expenses.

“The Conservative Party won’t get one more cent from me unless that happens – now,” said one typically incensed correspondent.

“The Tory MPs are supposed to be more upright than the others and claim that they deserve to be a majority government, so show the taxpayers some leadership and offer the auditor general full access.”

The electronic vitriol was sparked by the refusal of an all-party Commons committee to accede to Auditor-General Sheila Fraser’s request to audit the books of the lower house, including MPs’ expense accounts.

The committee, known as the Board of Internal Economy, stonewalled for months. Public outcry grew and members finally crumbled on June 15, announcing that Ms. Fraser would be allowed to conduct her audit.

Opinion polls at the time showed deep anger about the snub, with 85 per cent of Canadians surveyed in one Harris-Decima poll opposed to the committee’s intransigence.

And among the hundreds of e-mails to Mr. Harper obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act, there was but one that urged the Prime Minister to resist Ms. Fraser’s request.

The rest of the e-mails, many from senders claiming to be Conservative supporters, expressed shock that a government elected on a platform of transparency and accountability could be so hypocritical.

And many said their votes – and their political donations – were contingent on whether the Auditor-General would be allowed to inspect MPs’ travel, hospitality and other expenses.

“Next time I receive a phone call of those folks who say ‘I am phoning on behalf of the prime minister Harper’ and ask for money I will certainly tell them where to go.”

Any information that might identify the authors of the e-mails has been censored in the released versions, under privacy-protection rules.

The House of Commons spends about $500-million each year, of which some $130-million goes to pay MPs’ telephone bills, meals, travel, hospitality, office expenses and other discretionary items.

Recent political spending scandals that erupted in Britain, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador – some leading to criminal prosecutions of legislators – have heightened public interest in whether Canada’s MPs and senators are also fiddling with their own books.

Members of the secretive Board of Internal Economy, the nine-member oversight body for Commons spending, have said their existing controls – including annual audits by an outside accounting firm – are sufficient to protect taxpayers’ money. But the group operates behind closed doors, publishes bare-bones minutes months after meetings and is exempt from Canada’s freedom-of-information law.

The lone Bloc Québécois member, Michel Guimond, eventually agreed to Ms. Fraser’s request. That put pressure on the four Tory members who, had Mr. Harper ordered them to vote in favour, could have secured the majority vote needed to allow the audit.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and NDP Leader Jack Layton initially declined to support Ms. Fraser’s request; Mr. Harper was largely silent.

The Prime Minister publicly washed his hands of the issue on May 21, saying “this is a matter that is not under the government’s jurisdiction. Parliament is independent on these matters and, through the Board of Internal Economy, makes its own decisions.”

One e-mail warned: “When the 3 leaders of the big parties agree on anything, run for the hills.”

Many of the e-mail writers said Mr. Harper had a political opportunity to break from the Liberals and NDP, and throw his support behind Ms. Fraser’s request, which would earn him votes. Others warned that a Conservative majority would remain a chimera unless Mr. Harper allowed the audit.

“I can only see continued denial of an audit as seriously damaging any possible hopes of a Conservative majority in future elections,” one party faithful said.

Significant numbers of e-mails were from self-identified Tory supporters in Alberta and British Columbia, though Canadians from across the country wrote to the Prime Minister.

Many were outraged that as individuals they had no choice but to submit to audits from the Canada Revenue Agency but that MPs could simply thumb their noses at Canada’s highly respected Auditor-General.

“Mr. Harper you and your MP friends are no better than me, you are not entitled to different laws than me, you in fact work for me the taxpayer,” said an Alberta correspondent, whose subject line was “Disgusted by hypocrisy.”

Another citizen from British Columbia offered to review every MP’s restaurant receipts “for $75,000 per year, plus expenses.”

Canadians may be disappointed by the resolution of the impasse, however. Ms. Fraser will be carrying out a so-called performance audit of the administration of the House of Commons, which will include only a sampling of some MPs’ spending. The results will be available in the fall of 2011.

The audit, expected to cost $1.5-million, is in the earliest stage, with three of Ms. Fraser’s staff members doing planning during the slow summer season.

“No restrictions have been placed on how we carry out our audit work or on what we look at,” spokesman Ghislain Desjardins said.

“The Board of Internal Economy has pledged that the administration of the House of Commons will offer its full co-operation. … We are receiving good co-operation and have seen nothing in this case to the contrary now that it is under way.”

No records have yet been requested from any individual MPs, he added.

Ms. Fraser has also asked to see the books in the Senate, and is to appear before the Red Chamber’s standing committee on internal economy to make her case when it resumes sitting in the fall.

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