Don't audit MP expenses

Egad. I think I've found a less popular position than my proposal to quintuple MPs' office budgets. It is that the auditor general should not examine their spending, for managerial, political and constitutional reasons.

Let us start with the constitutional because it is most fundamental. The central function of Parliament in our battered system of self-government is to control the executive. Its central tool is control of the purse strings. And the central defect of our governance today is that legislators are unable even to figure out where the executive is spending, let alone what to do about it.

Arguably MPs and senators do not wish to spend time scrutinizing the "estimates" or reviewing spending because it offers neither professional nor personal satisfaction. It is scandalous to read that legislators gave up their power to approve government borrowing in the 2007 budget and didn't even know they'd done it. And the Liberal excuse for allowing a further shocking erosion of Parliament's authority in the latest massive omnibus, nay juggernaut budget bill, that they want to oppose the budget without bringing down the government, certainly underlines MPs' complicity in their own neutering.

So yes, there's a lot rotten in the state of Parliament. It doesn't mean we should make it worse and hope it helps. It means we need to get back to basics.

Here's one now. The auditor general is an officer of Parliament whose function is to assist legislators in understanding Executive branch spending so they have some hope of doing something about it. For her instead to devote her time to scrutinizing Parliament is not under present circumstances simply beside the point; it is directly contrary to it. What's out of control is executive, not legislative, spending.

At this point the political objection becomes pertinent. I recognize that MPs are currently held in shockingly low public regard for which, as with their powerlessness, they bear much blame. But clearly everyone including lazy journalists hopes if the AG turns her searchlight around 180 degrees we'll get juicy scandals involving expensive meals, fancy junkets and if we're really lucky busty hookers or embezzlement.

We don't need that and we don't want it. The executive branch already has the legislative on the ropes and the last thing we need is further manufactured outrage to reduce legislators from puppets and clowns to vaguely comic slime.

Of course I'm not trying to help legislators misuse or misappropriate public money. Honesty in public life is extremely important and Canada is very fortunate in that corruption in government is so rare here while citizens react with genuine, sustained outrage to any hint of it. But, despite what you read in the newspapers, we have safeguards in place here.

MPs are subject to rigorous rules about spending. And the House of Commons board of internal economy scrutinizes their spending, audits it thoroughly, and publishes the results on its website, by member (see If we like, voters can insist that MPs offer more detail or face electoral defeat. But it's no defence against fraud. That's what real audits are for. And the board of internal economy already does those while the auditor general isn't trying to.

Thus the managerial issue. Despite what many commentators seem to be implying, the AG isn't offering to track down lavish or illegal spending. She's offering a "performance audit" to discover whether Parliament spends in ways that seem effective to people who teach business administration.

I would not devote one cent of public (or private) money to such flow-chart gooblahoy. It is just more illusion of technique. And I can already tell you the answer: Parliamentary spending is completely ineffective because there isn't nearly enough of it.

MPs have a basic office budget of under $300,000 with which to track a million times that much executive branch spending. That budget hires at most four employees: two in the riding, one buried in administrative work, and one hapless overloaded underpaid young person doing all the policy research while desperately hoping one day to become a weakly supported MP instead of weakly supporting one. (Legislators also get help from the diligent but overloaded Library of Parliament and committee staff).

A U.S. Senator has from two- to five-dozen staffers and an important congressional committee has more than 100. There you can have a long, prestigious, well-paid career keeping legislators informed on one important issue. That's value for money. But you don't figure it out with flip charts and bullet lists. You use common sense.

MPs do many annoying things. But they are not evading financial scrutiny and they are not trying to. So don't be mad at them, or me, on this one.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson