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Audit proposal marred by lack of clarity: MP

Peter Varga
Northern News Services
Published Thursday, June 3, 2010

INUVIK - Northern politicians say they look forward to an end to the controversy over Parliament's refusal to allow an audit of their expenses, but say the lack of clarity in the request is the reason for MPs unwillingness to accept it.

"It's an operational audit of MPs' expenses," said Western Arctic MP Dennis Bevington said. "I think concerns lay with what the nature of the 'performance audit' was. Was the auditor general going to comment on whether she thought particular things that MPs did within the rules were correct performance? That's something I think goes beyond her purview.

"There are very specific rules about how expenses are made here."

Bevington said if auditor general Sheila Fraser wants to make changes to rules on how Parliament spends its more than $500 million budget, then that's fair game.

"If she's scrutinizing expenses to make sure they're spent correctly, and according to the rules, that's something I think everybody's comfortable with," Bevington said.

The auditor general's proposal raised doubts when the term "performance audit" was used.

"When she (Fraser) said 'performance audit,' people kind of wondered how that would be accomplished," said Bevington.

The term suggested judgment calls would be made over elected officials' decisions on spending when working for their voters, rather than whether established rules were broken, he said.

"How does somebody else tell you whether what you're doing is value for money? That's something I think that voters should decide," he said.

Bevington said MPs will be judged on their overall performance by voters who will ask whether "that person is valuable to their constituents."

The NDP member of Parliament pointed out federal officials operate under strict guidelines when spending money. MP and senators' travel, for example, is governed by a 64-point travel system that depends on the size of the riding and its distance from Ottawa. All expenses must be reviewed by an independent financial officer who follows specific guidelines. The MP pointed out, for example, that any newspaper advertisement he makes must be properly billed and reviewed.

"If they're not satisfied with how the advertisement was done, they won't pay the bill," said Bevington. "And the MP's stuck with it."

Expenses for office items are the possession of the House of Commons, he said.

"Anything we buy goes into an inventory and has to be accounted for at the end of our term."

Nick Sibbeston, senator for the Northwest Territories, questioned the need for a "performance audit."

"Politics is a different realm," the Liberal senator said. The term "performance," he said, implied the auditor would have to "make a determination as to whether people get value for money," which is an evaluation that only taxpayers and voters can make.

Like their MP counterparts, said Sibbeston, senators' expenses are scrutinized.

Joe Handley, Liberal candidate for the Western Arctic, said he never understood why there was any opposition to the auditor general's request, even if it had to do with "performance."

"My personal opinion is she has the right to do an audit whenever public money is being spent," Handley said. "If she comes up with some recommendations, fine. If not, then I guess we can assume that the money is being well spent right now."

The former NWT premier said he didn't understand why the federal political parties wouldn't agree to the audit. "The optic just looks bad," he said.

Conservative candidate Brendan Bell did not return calls by press time.

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