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Tories soften stand against opening books to Auditor-General

Auditor-General Sheila Fraser is seeking access to the expenses records of federal political parties.

Blair Gable/Reuters

Stephen Harper now agrees with Michael Ignatieff on at least one thing: Don't mess with Sheila Fraser.

A week in the ridings, getting an earful from constituents for rejecting the Auditor-General's request to open Parliament's books, has apparently forced the Conservatives to join the Liberals in softening their hard line. A decision that was presented as a flat no last Thursday by the Board of Internal Economy, which manages Commons spending, has now transformed into an opening for further talks.

"The Prime Minister is keen to see discussions continue. He's also keen to see this matter resolved with more transparency," said Mr. Harper's spokesman, Dimitri Soudas, on Sunday during an appearance on CTV's Question Period.

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The comment is not unlike those recently issued by Mr. Ignatieff, the Liberal Leader, who said Ms. Fraser should be invited back to the board to further discuss her proposal.

Given that the Bloc Québécois says it always supported the Auditor-General's request, that means three of the four parties in the House of Commons are at least supportive of further talks. The NDP remains officially opposed to the Auditor-General's request, though that too may change this week as several NDP MPs have called publicly for the party to reconsider.

The effect of the week of controversy may force MPs to go further than even Ms. Fraser had originally suggested. According to an exchange of correspondence released by the Auditor-General, Ms. Fraser's original request on Feb. 19, 2009 - later clarified in a May 13, 2009, meeting with the House of Commons - proposed a performance audit to whether the Commons "is effectively administered in accordance with established requirements in a fair, open and transparent manner."

That language suggests Ms. Fraser's focus would be more on the administration of the House of Commons, rather than an explicit focus on how MPs spend their individual office budgets. However, because of reports over the past year about political expense scandals in Britain, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, MPs clearly bristled at talk that similar exposés could happen in Ottawa.

In responding to the Auditor-General - as well as in private comments - MPs are adamant that such scandals could not happen in Ottawa, because a thorough system is in place that allows MPs to claim only receipted expenses that have been approved by the House administration according to strict rules.

"Continuous parallels are drawn in the media to the audit of Members' expenses in the United Kingdom and in some other Canadian jurisdictions inferring that the House of Commons would demonstrate a similar laxity in its financial controls and suggesting this as the reason for the board's reluctance to accede to your request," wrote the board's chair, House Speaker Peter Milliken, to Ms. Fraser in rejecting the proposed audit. "The [Parliament of Canada]Act gives the Board 'exclusive authority' to determine whether House resources are being properly used…"

The issue has expanded because while the board and the Auditor-General debate how the office budgets of MPs might fit into a future audit, some MPs are pushing for all their expenses to be posted online automatically - as currently takes place with the expenses of cabinet ministers and their staff.

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Liberal MP Michelle Simson was among the first, recently followed by her colleague Marlene Jennings. NDP MP Dennis Bevington, who spends a lot on travel as the only MP for the Northwest Territories, says he is looking at doing the same.

By coincidence, Mr. Milliken is making a rare appearance Tuesday morning before the House of Commons committee on procedure and House affairs to discuss the budget of the House. He is required to appear at this time every year as part of parliamentary process for approving annual spending budgets, but there will likely be much attention paid this year to what he has to say.

Speaking on CTV's Question Period, Ms. Jennings said she expects the House will reach a new position on the Auditor-General as early as this week.

"Or if we're not there yet, I think we'll be a good [part]of the way there," she said.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

A member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery since 1999, Bill Curry worked for The Hill Times and the National Post prior to joining The Globe in Feb. 2005. Originally from North Bay, Ont., Bill reports on a wide range of topics on Parliament Hill, with a focus on finance. More

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