MLAs agree to post their spending details, including receipts

The public will soon be able to see a detailed accounting of how their MLAs spend taxpayers’ money on travel, meals, hotels and constituency offices.

Liberal and NDP members of a legislative management committee have agreed, somewhat grudgingly, to follow Alberta’s lead and begin posting their expenses online, complete with receipts.

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Finance Minister Mike de Jong, who has been a vocal proponent of greater transparency, advocated the change at a meeting Tuesday.

His one caveat was that the names of hotels and flight numbers be blacked out for security reasons.

De Jong said he would like the system to be up and running by Sept. 1 with postings every three months.

“I think we’re on our way to doing what people expect,” he said.

The motion passed unanimously, but with some grumbling.

NDP house leader Bruce Ralston questioned the need for the public to see MLAs’ receipts, which are vetted by the comptroller’s office.

“What’s the magic in going to all the trouble of actually producing a receipt?” he said. “Do people believe that these claims are being submitted fraudulently and that there are no receipts supporting them?”

Ralston said the process of posting and redacting the receipts will take time and money. “And once that process starts, no one is going to look at the receipts.”

Liberal MLA Eric Foster, in a rare show of non-partisanship, was equally wary.

“I tend to agree with Bruce on pretty much everything he said there, but it’s obvious that somebody wants it,” Foster said. “We seem to read about it in the media every day, so someone obviously feels that we’re stealing money, or there wouldn’t be this big push for us to do this.”

De Jong pointed out that, in fact, there has been abuse elsewhere. Four Nova Scotia MLAs pleaded guilty to fraud and breach of trust in an expense scandal in that province.

“Why doesn’t the public trust politicians?” he said in an interview. “Well, in one Maritime province, some people went to jail.

“As much as politicians would like to leave that behind and talk about the Brave New World, you have to rebuild your credibility on those fronts. The way you do that, in my view, is to throw the doors open and put the documentation out there.”

De Jong also received resistance to his efforts to quash a perk for MLAs, who can fly staff or family members to Victoria at taxpayers’ expense 12 times a year. De Jong said it’s one thing to have the trips, but family members should not receive a $61-a-day per diem while in town.

“We’re saying grandma and grandpa can come down,” he said. “We’ve agreed to do that. But you know, grandma and grandpa can feed themselves. It’s not like we’re paupers. It’s not like we aren’t paid a good wage to do this.”

Ralston, however, had difficulty understanding the rationale for eliminating the perk. “I mean, it’s hard to imagine that one wouldn’t feed one’s child when they’re here,” he said.

The proposed policy was referred back to the audit and finance committee for further review.

lkines@timescolonist.com

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