Want to reduce dubious expenses? Post the receipts online

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Last week, news broke that federal Health Minister Jane Philpott had spent $1,700 on a high-end car service for a single day of driving her around the Toronto area. Her office then revealed there were more in the same vein: a $2,000 bill for a car on the day the minister spoke at a July meeting in Niagara Falls; $3,800 for 20 trips ($190 each) to Toronto’s Pearson Airport before flying to Ottawa for ministerial business.

Worse still, Philpott knew the owner of the company was a Liberal supporter who had volunteered on her election campaign. Within days, she had admitted this was unacceptable and agreed to repay taxpayers for the cost.

Philpott is not the first politician to get caught soaking taxpayers, and she won’t be the last. She’s only the latest in what sometimes feels like a relentless current of wasted money.

Senator Mike Duffy’s expenses saga is one of the more infamous examples. But who could forget former Conservative cabinet minister Bev Oda – who dinged taxpayers for pricey limousine rides and hotel stays while on business in London, as well as her $16 orange juice. (Oda later repaid taxpayers $3,000).

While Duffy remains defiant as he returns to the Senate and returns to billing Canadian taxpayers, at least both Oda and Philpott conceded their mistakes after getting caught. And it’s certainly a good thing that a politician can at least admit when they’ve done something wrong.

The problem, of course, is that the wrongdoing needs to be exposed first. And under the current system of expense disclosure – which requires media outlets and watchdogs like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation to file endless Access to Information requests to get numbers and details – there’s little incentive for politicians to worry about getting caught. Sure, there’s always a small chance some enterprising reporter will stumble upon something scandalous. But more often than not, dubious spending will remain hidden, buried in an ocean of information that no one will ever ask to see.

Under the current system, which in some cases only requires aggregated figures or vague categories of disclosure, Canadians are left in the dark about most of the details. And the details matter: the reason Philpott’s $1,700 limo bill is outrageous is because it’s for a single day; the same goes for Minister Oda’s $16 for a single orange juice. If these specific details had not been uncovered, and instead rolled into a month or year’s worth of ground transportation or meal expenses, no one may ever have noticed in the first place.

It’s time we force Senators, Members of Parliament and their staff to pay more attention to their expenses before they incur them by requiring physical expense receipts to be proactively scanned and posted online.

Since politicians must already provide physical or scanned receipts to claim reimbursement, there’s little extra administrative work to do. It’s just a matter of posting them online. Nor is it uncharted administrative territory: it’s already done in the City of Toronto and in Alberta.

Such a policy would force politicians and their staff to look at every prospective expense and ask themselves: is this a reasonable expense? Does it pass the “smell test”?

If the answer to either of these questions is “no”, you can bet they will think twice about incurring the expense.

It is probably impossible to design a system that will completely eliminate cavalier expenses by politicians. But we can certainly tilt the odds in taxpayers’ favour by making sure politicians know we’re all watching them closely.

Wudrick is the federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation

 

Ottawa Sun

AARON WUDRICK

FIRST POSTED: MONDAY, AUGUST 22, 2016 06:26 PM EDT

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