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Committee should meet watchdog over MPs' expenses: Ignatieff

Auditor-General Sheila Fraser holds a news conference in Ottawa on April 20, 2010.


The controversy over MPs refusing to let their expenses be scrutinized by Ottawa's spending watchdog may be nearing a tipping point.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said Wednesday that while he still thinks Canadians needn't see every receipt, he believes MPs "have to work out a way to move forward" on the impasse.

Canada's federal politicians have found few defenders outside Parliament Hill for their decision last week to deny Auditor-General Sheila Fraser permission to study their books. Their intransigence comes in the wake of political expense scandals that have shaken Nova Scotia and Britain.

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Mr. Ignatieff urged parties to invite Ms. Fraser to meet with the secretive Board of Internal Economy, which is responsible for MPs' budgets and expenses. It's this all-party committee that rebuffed the Auditor-General's proposal to screen their books on the grounds she doesn't have the right to do so.

The Liberal Leader's comments represent a shift of sorts since the expense uproar began.

While backbenchers of various stripes have said they'd welcome the Auditor-General's scrutiny of their spending, the Bloc Québécois was the only party to go against the grain and accord Ms. Fraser any standing on the matter. The Bloc has said it backed her request but was overruled by other parties on the Board of Internal Economy, which operates by consensus.

Mr. Ignatieff isn't going nearly as far the Bloc, but the meeting he is proposing would put great pressure on MPs to somehow accommodate Ms. Fraser's wishes.

"What I support is Sheila Fraser ... coming to the Board of Internal Economy and talking about what she wants to do and then taking it from there," the Liberal Leader told reporters in Calgary.

He said he understands Canadians who are unhappy with where things stand.

"My party's always believed in accountability and transparency," he said.

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"It's your money. And we want you to know clearly how we're spending it - we're spending it well and honestly and we have to work out a way to move forward."

Mr. Ignatieff tempered his remarks by saying he doesn't believe Canadians want every receipt picked over. "I don't think they want us to be going through our receipts for this meal and that meal necessarily. But they want ... transparency, and we're going to find a way to do that."

Michael O'Shaughnessy, spokesman for Mr. Ignatieff, said the Liberal Leader wants to find a solution to the impasse.

"We want to engage with the Auditor-General to ensure that all Canadians are satisfied with how their tax dollars are being spent," Mr. O'Shaughnessy said.

"We need to work together to get this done."

The Conservative government and the New Democrats reacted with scorn and skepticism.

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The Prime Minister's Office picked apart Mr. Ignatieff's comments, noting he was against MPs itemizing receipts for each meal and had argued that some accountability exercises are unnecessary. "There is accountability that is in itself a waste of public money. Do you understand what I am saying?" Mr. Ignatieff told reporters Wednesday.

Government House Leader Jay Hill did not immediately respond to questions about Mr. Ignatieff's proposal but spokeswoman Kenzie Potter said it would be up to the all-party Board of Internal Economy to discuss.

NDP spokesman Karl Belanger was unmoved. He said the amounts members of Parliament spend on things such as office budgets and travel and staff are currently made public and that a private firm already audits MPs' spending.

"She is an officer of Parliament. It would be like auditing her own bosses. That's why we have an external agency doing that."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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