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Silence speaks volumes in thwarted quest to audit Parliament's expenses

Ten months ago, Auditor General Sheila Fraser formally asked two committees for permission to audit Parliament's expenses, including the expenses of MPs and senators. She still hasn't received a reply. Silence equals no.

Similar audits in Great Britain and Nova Scotia resulted in major scandals after revelations of major abuse.

In Ottawa, MPs and senators are determined to prevent anything like that from happening

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"If you were to do any kind of examination and find anything amiss - I'm sure you would find some things that need to be corrected or improved - here would immediately be a scandal," Senator Lowell Murray told Ms. Fraser when she appeared before the Senate finance committee last week.

To prevent such an inconvenience, our MPs and senators prefer to keep their spending habits to themselves.

The Board of Internal Economy manages the expenses of the House of Commons. A similar committee runs the Senate. Both committees meet in secret. The House board is chaired by Speaker Peter Milliken and has representatives from all four parties.

The minutes of the House meetings are not released until months after they take place and are marvels of opacity.

"The Board approved payment of settlement of all claims against a member in an employment matter," is a typical example.

The board is exempt from external audits and Freedom of Information requests. Marcel Proulx, the Liberal MP who serves as spokesman for the board, declined requests for an interview.

In the past, defenders of these secret practices have said that strict internal controls prevent any abuse by MPs and senators of their office budget.

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No members, they insist, are expensing the cleaning of their moat, as famously happened in Great Britain last year, where the furor over MPs' expenses forced the resignation of the Speaker of the House and helped convince a third of the MPs in the Commons not to run again.

After a February report by the provincial auditor revealed that members of Nova Scotia's assembly had expensed renovations, widescreen TVs, video games and an espresso maker, all parties agreed to independent oversight of members' expenses.

Ms. Fraser insists her office is not in the habit of conducting witch hunts. But the expenses of Parliamentarians have never been audited, she said in an interview, and, with a combined budget of $520-million, "there's a significant amount of the taxpayers' money" involved.

Her office does not make big deals of minor infractions, she said, and would only dwell on MP or senator expenses if there was reason for serious concern.

"What we're really looking at is whether the systems and controls are in place to ensure things are being managed properly," she said.

Maybe there would be no scandals if MPs and senators had their expenses audited. Very few of them own a moat. The irony of their refusal to let Ms. Fraser in is that they stoke suspicions that may prove unfounded.

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But that's the price Parliamentarians must pay, for keeping the Auditor General - and taxpayers - outside the door.

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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