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Comment: MLAs showing disrespect to B.C. taxpayers

Oct 25 2012

Every time B.C. taxpayers think MLAs will put their expenses out, they pull them back in.

In August, rocked by public pressure and a scathing report from the auditor general on their bookkeeping, MLAs promised finally to make their spending open and transparent. Speaker Bill Barisoff made the most significant and specific vow: "Anybody wanting to look at that [MLA expenses] will be able to see receipts," he said.

That historic commitment to accountability lasted barely two months and didn't result in a single receipt being produced for the public to look at.

Last week, the Legislative Assembly Management Committee, chaired by Barisoff and made up of both Liberal and NDP MLAs, agreed to post quarterly expense reports online - but continue to withhold receipts, ensuring the public is kept in the dark on where public money is actually going.

For two parties who are at each other's throats on nearly every issue facing this province, it is astounding that the Liberals and NDP continue to walk in lockstep when it comes to hiding these receipts.

Posting receipts is the new standard for political accountability. Toronto's mayor and councillors, managing a budget roughly half the size of B.C.'s, have been posting receipts online for years. Alberta Premier Alison Redford recently announced that her government will post expense receipts online for 400 senior politicians and staff, sparking opposition MLAs to follow suit.

The B.C. backtrack is another example of politicians doing the bare minimum to try to deflect public scrutiny. It's a model started by the cabinet, who tout the fact they release monthly travel expenses - but don't explain how many trips occurred, where they went, why they went there, who accompanied them or what they spent our money on.

The information is virtually useless without context, and politicians know it. Yet they wonder why there has been such a breakdown in trust between taxpayers and the people who purportedly serve them in public office.

It's simple, really. Clinging to secrecy raises suspicions among taxpayers that our money is being spent in a way that MLAs would rather keep hidden. Why else would they refuse to produce receipts and invoices for observers to check?

There are legitimate items that must be addressed, no doubt. The Information and Privacy Commissioner's concerns that MLA staff salaries shouldn't be made public does not square with the fact that literally thousands of public employees have their pay disclosed every year. Still, the issue must be dealt with in dialogue with both the commissioner and the staff. But that certainly doesn't prevent other spending and receipts from being posted online.

Scanning receipts and getting the database up and running - or, more precisely, training staff to do the work - takes time and will cost taxpayers some money. However, transparency is money well spent, and certainly better spent on this than the millions spent on the Pacific Carbon Trust, government ads, JobFest or other wasteful spending.

None of these concerns are deal-breakers when it comes to transparency. They're just convenient excuses to back away from the commitment to put receipts online.

In next spring's election campaign, when party platforms will no doubt trumpet great claims and promises about openness and accountability, taxpayers would do well to remember that both the B.C. Liberals and NDP have failed the transparency test.

Jordan Bateman is B.C. director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

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