Let there be light

  • May 31, 2010
Ottawa Peace TowerWhen children want to become magicians they are taught to say hocus pocus. When adults want to become politicians they are taught to say transparency and accountability. In both cases, the audience eats it up. Children, though, grow up to realize that people aren’t fooled by hocus pocus alone, while politicians never seem to learn.

Our elected representatives, regardless of party, are forever calling for  government to be more open and transparent. They understand that voters want to know what their government is doing, how it is doing it and what it costs. Simple, really.

Yet when called recently to open their own books to public scrutiny, federal politicians reacted as if the auditor general was asking them to stick their head in the lion’s mouth.

The request from Sheila Fraser for a performance audit of $500-million in annual spending by MPs and senators was initially refused by the Board of Internal Economy, an all-party, back-room committee that privately vets parliamentary affairs. The message Parliament sent to voters was, more or less, mind your own business. Naturally, a public uproar ensued and politicians eventually softened their resistance and now seem ready to accept – albeit reluctantly – some level of scrutiny.

The public, of course, has every right to know how MPs pass the working days and spend taxpayer dollars. Voters have every right to react with anger and cynicism when MPs trumpet transparency and accountability one day but refuse to be transparent and accountable the next. It’s hard to understand why politicians don’t get that.

At a recent ceremony to unveil his official portrait in the House of Commons, former prime minister Jean Chretien lamented the fading reputation of politicians. He said things like: “We have to show respect to the men and women who devote their life to public life” and “there are some bad apples in there but not very often,” and “they are honest but everybody pictures them as a bunch of crooks.” He praised the vocation of public service and denounced the cynicism that often shadows political life.

Most Canadians would probably agree with Chretien that parliamentarians deserve respect and that the bad apples are few. Most MPs operate with integrity and respect the public purse. The purpose of an audit isn’t to embarrass the good guys. It’s to identify operational shortcomings and inefficiencies and, yes, find the bad apples that even Chretien, who spent 40 years in Ottawa, admits sometimes bring rot to the barrel.

As Fraser says, MPs needn’t worry about an audit if they’ve developed a good system of checks and balances. In other words, they have nothing to fear if they have nothing to hide. It’s time to get rid of the hocus pocus and bring genuine transparency and accountability to Ottawa.

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