MPs such as the NDP’s Charlie Angus have made plenty of hay over the controversial expenses of senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Mac Harb.

Angus, who represents Timmins-James Bay in Ontario, said the Senate refuses “to show any level of accountability” and senators are “showing absolute contempt by thumbing their noses at the Canadian people.”

Yet Canadians don’t know any more about the $465,000 that taxpayers spent on Angus’s expenses, office and staff last year than they do about the expenses of the senators he criticizes.

The House of Commons is special not because it remains archaically secretive, but because last year it dodged the type of expense scandal that forced many other governments into the open.

When people in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador and the United Kingdom found out what their politicians were spending taxpayer money on, the public outrage left governments no choice but to reform.
In Ottawa, MPs police their own spending through the Board of Internal Economy, a group of MPs that holds its meetings in secret (at least the meetings of the Senate’s internal economy committee are public). The public can only see overall tallies of how much MPs spent, which is of little value.

MPs say there are strong processes in place to prevent misconduct, which is what they said in Nova Scotia up until 2010.

This system came under threat when then-federal auditor general Sheila Fraser announced she wanted to look into MP and Senate expenses. The politicians fought Fraser’s audit. Eventually a compromise was reached — Fraser would gain access to a sample of MP expenses to make sure the system is working.

For anyone who reported on the Nova Scotia expense scandal, the final federal report released last June was staggeringly disappointing.

Federal auditors did not investigate the Board of Internal Economy or MPs’ staff and offices. They looked at just 264 out of 85,000 expenses in 2010-11 — less than one half of one per cent.

Still, federal auditors found that seven per cent of expenses were not authorized, five per cent lacked receipts or invoices and five per cent were not properly coded.

In terms of blatantly inappropriate expenses —ones that did not comply with rules or were unrelated to parliamentary business — 1.5 per cent fit the bill. That doesn’t seem like much at first, but, when extrapolated, it could mean there were almost 1,300 completely inappropriate expenses that year.

But by the time the report came out, Fraser had been replaced by current federal auditor general Michael Ferguson.

Ferguson’s report was extremely forgiving. He made no comment about the propriety of having MPs police themselves and blamed lack of clarity in the rules for most of the problems.

Contrast this with Nova Scotia. Provincial auditor general Jacques Lapointe also refused to name the politicians tied to inappropriate expenses in his initial report. But he outlined those expenses in detail and levelled a scathing assessment of a broken system.

Ferguson declared that the system was, for the most part, being well followed. But when The Chronicle Herald asked to get more details on the inappropriate expenses, his office refused to provide more information.

In Nova Scotia, you can now see copies of the actual receipts for what politicians spend with public money. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation and others have asked what good reason is there for the House of Commons not to do the same.

Of course, there is none, other than that it works well for the people spending the money.

The Senate is only a bit better than the House.

The Senate releases quarterly summaries instead of annual ones, and its internal economy committee meetings are open. But there is surely room for more openness. Of course, for those who disagree with the Senate’s existence, every dollar spent is a waste.

But until members of Parliament bring their own system into the 21st century, they don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to calling for changes to the Senate.