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Provincial Politics: Simpson And de Jong Battle Hogg-Wash On Expenses
By Jordan Bateman. BC Liberals and NDP MLAs don’t agree on much these days, but they are in lockstep when it comes to hiding their expenses from the public. This reluctance to be transparent contradicts what is happening in democracies around the world.
In England, political expense fraud sparked a total revamp of their system. In Nova Scotia, an audit found MLAs billing taxpayers for video games, hi-def TVs and espresso machines. This stopped when expenses began to be posted online. In Toronto, the gold standard for expense accountability, taxpayers can examine their local city councillor’s receipts, one-by-one.
But B.C. taxpayers are still waiting for their MLAs to follow suit–despite a spring 2010 promise that action would happen before that fall. The two parties continue to hide behind an all-party legislative committee, doing everything to prevent releasing detailed MLA expense reports. If you were holding your breath for true transparency, you’ve long since expired.
However, a glimmer of hope has arrived in the form of two MLAs, Bob Simpson and Michael de Jong, who are pushing their colleagues to come clean on spending. These two—one a former member of the NDP, now sitting as an independent; the other BC’s Health Minister—plan to release an itemized list of expenses to the public who pays their bills.
De Jong (Abbotsford West) and Simpson (Cariboo North) say they will soon post spreadsheets on their MLA websites showing how much they spend on staff salaries, office furniture, supplies, advertising, cell phones, meals and more.
Simpson is lucky. As an independent, he is free from partisan pressure to keep spending secret. De Jong, however, was already slapped down publicly by BC Liberal caucus chair Gordon Hogg, who claimed that the all-party Legislative Assembly Management Committee hasn’t yet decreed how expenses will be released and voluntarily published.
“We want to release the information from everybody in the same format so that valid comparisons can be made – to save people being vilified for inappropriate reasons,” Hogg told the Peace Arch News, adding that the committee also wants approval from the Information and Privacy Commissioner.
For every tiny step toward transparency, B.C. taxpayers seem to run into a brick wall. Just look at the provincial government’s new open data website. Yes, it does technically include monthly travel costs for ministers, if you click through enough links. For example, you can see that Premier Christy Clark spent $2,571 in travel in June 2011, bringing her year-to-date total to $5,060.54. However, that line item is all that is reported—not how it was spent, where she went, where she stayed or ate, or with whom she spoke.
A lot of taxpayer money is at stake here. On top of their salaries, MLAs can claim $19,000 per year for living expenses, $11,580 in in-constituency travel costs, plus $61 a day for meals. Add in an annual constituency office allowance of $119,000.00 (in addition to office space leases) and a generous travel policy that is charged back to the Province, and we see just how much taxpayer cash our elected officials are entrusted with.
After all, if they aren’t willing to tell us how they spend those dollars individually, how can we trust them to manage a $41.9 billion provincial budget?
Jordan Bateman is the British Columbia Communications Director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation