I'm not casting judgment on the efficiencies of either Speaker Milliken or Speaker Scheer, but I know that certainly on behalf of everyone in our caucus, it is very, very good to see you again. You were always, in our opinion, an excellent Speaker.
It is in that capacity, of course, that you're here. We're engaged in a study on whether or not the Board of Internal Economy should be replaced.
I have one specific question. I'd like to hear your observations on that particular question.
To clarify things, for the last couple of meetings, Mr. Julian has been trying to impress upon people that the board either has in the past or is moving towards more of a vote-centric type of decision-making process. We have heard from Clerk O'Brien and also from IPSA in the United Kingdom that they work on a consensus basis.
My understanding is that the Board of Internal Economy for many years now has worked on a consensus basis. I would like to set the record straight so that we don't have the same type of, quite frankly, misinformation coming from Mr. Julian and the NDP.
Beyond the consensus question, I would ask you an open-ended question. Do you think that Parliament would be better served by scrapping the BOIE and going to an independent, arm's-length body similar to what the U.K. has done?
So there are two questions, one on consensus and the second on observations on whether the BOIE should be replaced by some other form or body.
I can't tell you that I know much about the replacement of the British practice there. I've read only minimal amounts about it, and I didn't know that was the thrust of what I was coming to address tonight. So I'm not an expert on that at all and I won't make much more comment.
I have to say that, in my view, the Board of Internal Economy has done a wonderful job as the governing body of the financial side of the House of Commons. I say that having been a member, obviously, since I was Speaker. I don't think I was on the board before—to the best of my recollection, I don't think I was—so I had no familiarity directly with the way it worked. But certainly watching it function, as chair, for the 10 years or so that I was there, I thought it worked really well.
The strengths were that because the meetings were in camera, you had almost no partisan fights, public ones, in the meeting that you would have had if the meetings had been open. Members didn't bother drawing on partisan differences. They said, “We have to fix problems that arise here between parties or with members and the board”, in terms of compliance with the rules that the board issued. And the rules were in the manual, very specific bylaws and all that stuff, that the board passed, so members were expected to comply with those—not just expected, it was demanded. The board officials who did the work reviewing members' claims were very thorough, in my view, in examining those claims and making sure there was no issue or problem in terms of compliance with the rules and bylaws of the board set out in the manual.
Then the claims were paid. Members could appeal to the board if they felt they had been unfairly treated, and did, and we would listen to the arguments or review the letter, at least, the member sent, or whatever, and then look at the decision that had been made and see whether we supported it or not. Generally, there was unanimity in most cases, I think. Consensus was standard at all meetings. There were hardly ever votes while I was chair—maybe twice or three times. There were very, very few. It was almost always a consensus deal, and the decision was made on a whole host of issues.
There was lots of criticism from the media that we weren't having our meetings in public. The minutes were always tabled in the House later. They didn't like that because they were too scanty in terms of detail. But the decisions of the board were in the minutes.
Given the nature of the discussion, on mostly financial issues—the big thing the board is dealing with is money—you wouldn't expect that kind of discussion to take place in public, given the claims or sought-after allowances or exceptions to the rules or whatever that were sought by anybody on any issue that had come up. It wouldn't be something that should be advertised, in my view, in public. It wouldn't be in any corporation, that's for sure, so why would it be here?
In the end, I thought the board functioned really well as a board of directors, if I can call it that, or a governing body for the House, in part because of the rules that applied to it in terms of having its meetings in camera, in terms of the appointments to the board, the people who were working there, and the fact that it was charged with responsibility for, in effect, financial oversight of the House. It did its work, in my view, very effectively.
I don't know why there's a sudden press to change it. I'm kind of surprised at this because there hasn't been a scandal involving House expenditures on anything the way there has been in the other place. I don't mean to dump criticism on the other place, but I think our system has worked really well, and I think our rules have been very precise and quite specific. For that reason, I don't think we've had a problem with members misspending or getting away with something very often. It has hardly ever happened.
First of all, thank you very much for asking me to appear in front of this august committee. I hope everybody is aware that it has been some years since I was Speaker of the House of Commons, but I've kept a pretty close interest in what is going on in the House of Commons and I am very much intrigued by the motion that has brought this committee together.
I don't want to go back through all the history of the House of Commons and the history of the Speaker's office; I'm not going to try to do that. I've had the advantage of reading most of what Audrey O'Brien gave in testimony and also her abbreviated notes, and I do have the elements of the motion in front of me, which all of you know and I don't need to repeat.
There are a couple of things I would like to say. First of all, things have probably changed quite significantly in many ways since I had the privilege of serving in the House as Speaker, so I do not speak with any intimate sense of what problems the Board of Internal Economy has had to deal with in recent years. But I am very intrigued that there are some who think that the Board of Internal Economy should either cease to exist or be transformed into a commission of some sort to make it more independent and to satisfy those who feel, understandably so, that there ought to be greater transparency in the activities of the Board of Internal Economy.
I have to say that raises some very interesting questions: exactly what form would this new commission take, and who would be included in it? If it were independent and all the members of it were not related in any way to their duties as members of Parliament, what would that do to the sensitivity of such a commission? Who would appoint the commission? Is it the government? Is it the House of Commons? Who makes that decision, and what are the requirements for those who would serve on such a commission?
Some of you may have answers to those questions, and some who have appeared in front of you may have given those answers, but I haven't heard them, for whatever reason. Those are clearly issues that all of you on the committee will have to deal with.
I want to go back some years, because I did ask Audrey O'Brien, when she had research done into the history of the Speakership, if I can use that worn phrase.... I couldn't remember, in all the years I was there, any major problem we had in the operation of the Board of Internal Economy. For the most part, in fact, I don't ever remember a situation in which we had a serious difference of opinion. We always seemed to work things out among us—again to use an overworked term—on a consensual basis.
One of the most important parts of the Board of Internal Economy was made up of members of Parliament. It was made up of both government and opposition members, and of course the Speaker had the duty to chair it.
As far as my memory goes—and I have not been able to go back through the years and look at any minutes, so I don't have exact details in my mind—we seemed to function pretty well, and we didn't seem to come in for very much criticism.
There's another point that I'd like to at least raise for your consideration, and that is, if we're going to have a commission that does what the Board of Internal Economy did or does, what's the role of the Speaker? Is the Speaker part of the new commission? To what degree are the obligations of the Speaker, which is fundamentally, as I'm sure you're all aware, first of all, of course, the administration.... Well, his first jurisdiction, of course, is the House of Commons, the rules and procedures, and order in the House, etc., but as I'm sure you all know, the Speaker's office and those around the Speaker have an enormous administrative responsibility, and also a responsibility for security, in conjunction, of course, with other people.
Those are major responsibilities. I don't know right now whether the notions behind a commission are going to change dramatically the role of the Speaker, especially the two main roles that the Speaker, up until now, has had. The first, of course, is the House of Commons, and the second is the administration of everything on the Hill.
The last thing I want to say is this. I pay attention to the media and to public comment about the House of Commons, and of course more recently the Senate, which I don't know very much about anyway, and I am deeply distressed at the degree to which so many Canadians seem to think that anyone who goes into public life is, potentially, at least, unworthy of their votes or unworthy of their support.
Now, as I say, I'm speaking about many years ago, but my experience as Speaker was that for the vast majority of members I knew—and it didn't matter which side of the House they were sitting on—most of them cared a great deal about the country, first of all, and most of them were putting a tremendous amount of effort into trying to do the job they got elected to do: looking after their constituents and their problems, and dealing with the issues of legislation and committees and all that sort of thing.
One of the things that a lot of people don't want to face up to is that there's a great variety of ability among the people we elect to the House of Commons. Some have never had an office in their lives, and some of them have never had a secretary or a staff. Some of them, on the other hand, have had very important administrative, entrepreneurial, and academic positions. So you get a considerable difference in basic ability. Some rise to the occasion. Some do the best they can, but they don't become outstanding.
But all of this is part and parcel of the democratic election system we have, and I think I can say that in my experience, both as a member of Parliament and then later as Speaker of the House of Commons, most members of Parliament were pretty aware that their obligation was to the country, to their constituents, to the House, and to the public interest.
Now, I don't know to what degree an appointed commission is going to be able to be sensitive to these things. I can't tell, because we don't know who would be on it, or how many people.
Again I come back to this: would some of the duties of the Speaker on the administrative side be put off to the commission? Would others remain with the Speaker's office? But those are questions that I'm sure all of you on the committee are acutely aware need attention.
I'm not particularly enthusiastic about an appointed, so-called independent commission, but I suppose I could be persuaded.
The last thing I want to say is this. There's an old saying that before you change something, you'd better be awfully sure that you're going to come up with something better. There's another saying that goes with it that says if you're going to change something, identify what it is that is the cause for needing the change. That has to be more than just somebody writing a letter to the editor or some media person with a deadline to meet, knowing that criticism or something dramatic will get more attention than otherwise. I think this has to be kept in mind.
The last thing I want to say is this. Instead of a Board of Internal Economy that meets on its own in camera, I suppose you could have a commission that meets in camera sometimes when it is appropriate and also sometimes meets in committee in private. But what I haven't seen yet in the discussion is whether we are going to have a situation where we have a commission and the members come, and then it's open to the media and questions from the public. Is it going to be a wide open arrangement? If it is, what happens when the members feel that some matters are delicate enough and appropriate enough to be discussed in camera? Are we going to get the same criticisms that we get against the Board of Internal Economy?
Those are thoughts that I have. I don't want to go on too long, but I'd be very pleased to hear what members have to say and try to respond to any questions you might have.
Again, I want to express my appreciation for being invited to come before you, and I apologize for being a bit late.
Mr. Julian, unless I were able to go back over all of the minutes over a number of years.... I might find a situation like that, but if there had been situations like that, I think I would have a pretty good memory of it. I can't recall any situation in which the discussion at the Board of Internal Economy became so two-sided, if I can put it that way, that there was need for anything except to try to find a way through it.
I'll say this. There were times, of course, when members on both sides, both the opposition and the government side, might start off a discussion in which they seemed to have one position, and that position would be modified as they heard from each other. Of course, it is also the Speaker's task to try to make that happen, but it also happened, at least in my experience, because members around the table, while they might be able to have quite severe differences of opinion on the floor of the House, seemed to find ways to work things out. That doesn't mean they always started off a discussion in complete agreement, because I think that's asking for too much. But they were all there to do the job that had to be done, and as long as the decision didn't so upset one or two people, no matter what side of the House they were on, they would usually concede, “All right, we can live with this.”
There is another problem with this, which I didn't get into in my earlier comments, and that is what do they do when members come along and ask “Well, what exactly did you say in these debates?” The members will later see the minutes or something and see the result of the deliberations. I don't have any particular answer to that. But it seems to me that people, being normal...there was probably some discussion by members of the Board of Internal Economy with some of their own caucus before they came to meetings, and there may have been some discussion afterwards.
Thank you, Speaker Milliken and Speaker Fraser. It's great to see the two of you here.
I have some experience from the Manitoba perspective. I sat on the Legislative Assembly Management Commission, which operates in a similar fashion to the internal board here in Ottawa. When I reflect and I try to understand why it was that we moved in a certain direction in the Province of Manitoba, I can't help but apply some of that here in Ottawa. For example, Canadians as a whole want to see more transparency. They want to see more accountability. The issue of proactive disclosure seems to be talked about a great deal. When you look at the things the Board of Internal Economy does, are there things we can take out of the Board of Internal Economy that might appease the need to be more transparent and accountable?
I'll give you a specific example. We have a commissioner in the Province of Manitoba. It's the commissioner who sets the pay and the pensions for MLAs. The Canadian public, as a whole, don't believe politicians should set their own pay or determine their pensions. Having that independent commission proves to be of value.
The idea of movement toward more public meetings and not to have in camera meetings, may be an issue. Can we set up a subcommittee that deals with highly personal, in camera type topics that do come up but ultimately have to go back to the full committee in order to ultimately be approved?
Can I get each of your thoughts with regard to answering those types of need? Are there some things that we can kind of hybrid away from the Board of Internal Economy, thereby giving more attention to those critical issues?
Speaker Milliken, do you want to start off?
First of all, the rationale for the board meeting in camera is a very sensible one, in that they're dealing with mostly what I would call personal issues of claims for payment or whatever—that's a big thing for the board to deal with—and then policies for dealing with those things as well, because they do the bylaws and regulations that govern the way members submit claims and how they're processed and all that sort of stuff.
That part isn't secret. The bylaws are all made public. They're all there for people to read, if they want to, and to see what rules govern members and the way they can make claims and how they're to be processed—all that sort of stuff. So I don't see that as a big issue. I know the media try to make it such, but it isn't. It has worked, and we've had very few problems with it over the years I've served in Parliament. To my mind, it's worked remarkably well. I'm not counting the Senate; I'm talking about the House, and that part has worked really well. I think it's because the rules are public. Yes, they're passed in private at meetings, but then they're made public, and so are the minutes of the meetings. So that stuff is not secret in that sense. The record of what has gone on is there.
Now, sure, it's not a detailed record of who said what, but it does have the decisions the board made that are made public. And I think that's important. I'm not disagreeing with that aspect of the way the body functions, but I also think that in making decisions and reviewing complaints or reviewing cases that members have asked to be raised because they feel they were unfairly treated...it's reasonable for that part to be done in secret, behind closed doors. Why should the member make public the fact that he's unhappy with a decision that was made in respect of a claim the member advanced? I don't see why that's an issue. The question is whether the claim was correct or not, and the board will make its decision. Those decisions have been, in my view, well made over the years that I was there. I never heard complaints in the time before I was on the board, as chair, from any of the previous ones either. It was something that just didn't happen.
I feel our system works very well, and I think it's important to bear that in mind. If we had people making false claims or there were a lot of claims that were not well regulated because our regulations were weak or not properly enforced, yes, but that hasn't been an issue, and it isn't an issue, in my view, with the House of Commons. That's why I'm a strong defender of the way our current system works and the way it has functioned. I think it's good, and I think it's served the House very well, it has served the members very well, and it has served the public of Canada very well.
Salaries of members are not an issue the board decides; it's a government issue. The budgets are what set these things, and they are introduced by the Minister of Finance. The recent restrictions on budget increases for members for their salaries were done in the budget, as I understand it. That's my recollection. I don't think the board ever made a decision in respect of MPs' pay. They may have affected their budgets. If the Department of Finance, in its budget that the minister gives in the House, cuts the Board of Internal Economy's budget, you can only imagine where the cuts are going to fall. MPs' salaries are dealt with by the Minister of Finance in the budget, not by the Board of Internal Economy.
The board isn't there just to look after members. It's there to look after the interests of the House of Commons. In my view, it's done a remarkably good job of it. And I'm not saying that because I was the chair; I'm just saying the way it worked, the way the members worked around the table, to me was extremely good.
It was quite non-partisan. One party would say, “Our member is asking for additional payment for this or for that, but we don't support it”, and the others say, “We don't support it either”, and that was the end of it. That's the way the board works, in my view. It's mostly consensus, and it was very effective for that reason.
Thank you, Speakers, for your attendance today. This is all very helpful.
Let me say, just by way of a little assistance, that IPSA, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, the British system that has been set up—this is from our library analyst—in a nutshell has three main roles:
...it regulates the system of costs and expenses, sets MPs’ pay and pensions, and administers and pays MPs’ salaries, business costs, staff salaries and expenses. IPSA is fully independent from Parliament but does respond to written questions from MPs, and publishes all Freedom of Information requests.
As some of us would see it, that's the ideal, the gold standard, and the question is whether we feel we're going to go there or not.
I might just also say that, like some others here, I have sat on a Board of Internal Economy—at Queen's Park, but as you know, the rules there are very consistent with ours and it is similar in the way it functions—so I am very familiar with not only what goes on outside but what happens inside BOIE.
Speaker Milliken, I jotted down that you said the BOIE for the most part did a wonderful job, that it functioned really well, that there were no partisan fights, and that it worked very effectively—things such as that. I certainly wouldn't disagree; I think it has served us well.
But that's the whole point: one of the Speaker's most important roles is to protect the rights of members of Parliament. This is about the issues of the rights of the public, and I would contend that we don't have to prove that the BOIE is broken to justify going to a better system.
Yesterday, the Auditor General told us:
In my opinion, governance can be strengthened by having an independent body that would either advise the Board of Internal Economy or be given the responsibility for all matters related to Members' expenses and entitlements. Regardless of the role of such a body, it is important that Canadians are confident that its membership is independent and that the members have been chosen in a non-partisan manner.
And of course our guests from Britain advised us as to the system they had set up and how it works.
Here is my issue. Every party talks about transparency and accountability, but you can't just talk the talk; you have to walk the walk. That's the difficulty with staying where we are right now. The public views this, and rightly so, as part of—to use an expression—“the old boy network”, and you can't blame them for feeling that, when it is us deciding on things about us and for us.
That doesn't necessarily mean that there has been anything wrong. For a long time, the notion was that we'd just have a few good chaps go in and do a good, competent job. Well, good chaps sometimes turn out to be not so good, and competency often is not so competent. Yet there is no accountability, because it's all us; it's all in-house.
The issue I would put to Speaker Milliken, because I quoted you, but certainly to Speaker Fraser, if you wish to comment, is....
And Speaker Fraser, you said that you could be convinced. I would put the question to you: do you really think we need to prove that the BOIE is not working and not functioning and is effectively a failed body, in order to justify going to a better system? If we can show that there's a better system that meets the public needs, and we have something to draw from—a standard, which is Britain's, in the Westminster mother ship.... They went through horrible scandals and came up with this model. We're in the process of changing everything, and we have a motion on the floor that says we should look at that model. I'm just asking, do we really have to prove that BOIE is broken before we can justify going to something that meets the current, modern era and public needs of accountability and transparency?
It's getting to be a long time ago, but I don't remember that being a big issue at all.
I just wanted to say something to Mr. Christopherson. When I said that there's an old saying that you don't look for a new solution unless you've seen the problem, I don't want him or any of you to think that I don't think there's any room for improvement. I think there could be.
What I've raised is how are you going to do it, and to what degree are you going to change the responsibility of the Speaker and of those members who would have been on the Board of Internal Economy? For instance, if you had an independent committee to check all expenditures of members of Parliament, and that is what they did and nothing else, that might work. But when you get into the whole question of whether or not you think the Board of Internal Economy ought to support the plans of the public service department in its renditions of new buildings or in accommodation adjustment and that sort of thing, you don't need an independent committee to do that.
So there may be some things that an independent commission could do that would meet the very things that Mr. Christopherson was talking about, and that is that the public gets more upset about the misuse of public money than about many other things. If that would solve it, then perhaps the committee on which you're all working could come up with a solution.
My point is that you don't start coming up with a whole new commission to take over everything that has already been done unless you can point at the problem. In fairness to Mr. Christopherson, he did point out a specific problem. I think that might be something that could be done.
Nevertheless, thanks to the committee members for inviting the CAJ to express our views.
Briefly, as some background on our organization, we are Canada's largest national professional organization for journalists from all media, representing approximately 600 members across the country. We have two primary roles, one to provide high-quality professional development to our members and the second is public interest advocacy, which I guess is why we are here today.
As you know, we are here to provide our organization's perspective and a working journalist's perspective—I am a working journalist; I work for Maclean's—on your study of the Board of Internal Economy.
In my remarks today I really have two themes. The first is parliamentarians' responsibility to be transparent and the second is journalists' responsibility to report in the public interest.
Today I won't provide you with specific recommendations related to the particular composition of any re-imagined Board of Internal Economy. That's not my expertise. But I will emphasize the value of a more transparent board to the public—of course, the public being the citizens who ultimately hold politicians to account.
There are two caveats to my remarks today. The first is that we ought to recognize the steps the board has taken over the years to enhance transparency and improve it. When the Clerk of the House, Audrey O'Brien, testified at this committee earlier this month, she outlined the many steps the board has taken in a good direction: the board's website is more robust than ever; meeting minutes are posted online, and I believe more quickly than they had been before; and members' expenditure reports that are online do outline in some detail how parliamentarians spend their budgets.
The second caveat is that we are sensitive to concerns that matters normally reserved for in camera debate ought to stay behind closed doors. Of course, there are legitimate reasons for in camera sessions, as members of this standing committee or any standing committee know and are well aware of. Neither of those caveats, however, suggest that the board cannot and should not be more open, in our view. We think openness should be the rule, not the exception.
In her testimony, Ms. O'Brien suggested that the benefits of public meetings would be mostly illusory. She said, “I don't think, if the meetings of the board were to be held in public, this would improve the situation. It might improve the perception of the board.” And she added that meetings conducted with open doors would “drive the actual discussion underground” because parliamentarians would be loath to discuss matters candidly and with less overt partisanship.
We are absolutely understanding of those concerns, but, frankly, we don't think that is sufficient reason to close the doors on the board's meetings. If the tenor of debate around the table changes for the worse and is taken safely underground, as she put it, in our opinion that's a failing of MPs that they need to address among themselves. The public shouldn't be barred from meetings because parliamentarians need closed doors to get things done and to get along.
Ms. O'Brien also said that the committee's deliberations are “of mind-numbing ordinariness”, and former law clerk Rob Walsh, testifying at the committee on November 7, said the meetings are “boring as hell”. Interesting as that may be as a comment, the entertainment value of board meetings is really of no importance to journalists, nor the broader public. I have no reason to question Ms. O'Brien's or Mr. Walsh's words, but our job is to witness events and speak truth to power, not to take people of influence at their word and eventually read fairly sparse meeting minutes whenever they are posted online.
The public knows precious little of what happens at board meetings. They know nothing at all about when or where the board will meet. They only know that meetings occur “approximately every second week when the House is sitting”. Approximation is not precision, which I think the public should expect.
Mr. Walsh made several recommendations to this committee. He suggested that board meetings “be held in public with its agendas made public the day before, subject to the usual limitations for privacy”, and further he mused that the board could establish subcommittees that would meet privately and present reports publicly at public meetings. That sounds to us like a step in the right direction.
The committee has asked previous witnesses about the board's treatment of proactive disclosure, namely, whether or not there is enough public disclosure of MP spending. I don't have time during this statement to address that point fully, but I will say that greater and more specific disclosure would help journalists better understand how public money is spent. Not every expensed item, of course, is a matter of public concern, but we'd like the public to make that decision on their own.
In closing, we understand how far the board has come, but anything short of open meetings means the public is effectively cut out of a forum that administers over $400 million of public money each year, and we support open doors to allow us to scrutinize that administration.
Thank you again for inviting me.
I'm happy to take any questions you have, which as you can probably understand is kind of a bizarre thing for a journalist to say to a room full of politicians.
Okay. I have a couple of questions along that line.
Number one, I will refer to some of Mr. Christopherson's comments when the Speakers were both here. He pointed to IPSA—and I hope I'm not mischaracterizing David's comments—as perhaps a better system. He stated that the public really shouldn't accept, or doesn't accept, MPs governing themselves and setting their own rules when it comes to pay and benefits.
From a transparency standpoint, which is your main concern, IPSA told us that they started having their meetings in public but then quickly went to in camera. That's how they do all their meetings now, and they listed several good reasons for that.
Madam O'Brien and both Speakers Milliken and Fraser said that in camera would be better as well, because there's a more frank, open, and frankly more productive discussion. Your point was that they can still do that in public because if partisanship came into the situation it would be the fault of the MPs.
I think what we're trying to do here is to make sure that taxpayers' dollars are treated respectfully and properly. I'm not sure, given the fact that all decisions are made public, that the rules and bylaws concerning spending of MPs are public, and that all of the decisions, as I said before, are made public, how having meetings made public would enhance the benefit to the public. Given the fact that there could be problems about partisanship, because that's just the environment we're in—shame on us perhaps, but that's the environment we live in—I don't see how transparency and the benefit to the public would be enhanced.
I'd like a comment on that.
Secondly, and on a separate issue, if it's the fact that you're more concerned about transparency because of taxpayers' dollars, would you be advocating for all crown corporations to have all of their meetings in public as well? We're still talking about taxpayers' dollars there.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Thank you, Mr. Taylor-Vaisey, for being here today.
I just wanted to mention the good work of the Canadian Association of Journalists. Recently the Canadian Association of Journalists granted the Code of Silence Award to the Conservative government, and I want to quote association president Hugo Rodrigues, who said that the Harper government was the overwhelming choice of the CAJ's 600 members across the country. He said, “The death grip on information has long frustrated journalists in this country, but it may now be reaching a point where the public at large is not only empathetic, but shares it.”
I'm going to ask a series of questions. The first is, do you feel that the public has a greater and greater concern about the secrecy of the current government and, by extension, of course, the secrecy around the Board of Internal Economy decisions?
Secondly, we now have on the other side, on the side of good, the Auditor General, who this week said very clearly that his preference was that there be an independent body “given the responsibility for all matters related to members' expenses and entitlements”. He said, “...it is important that Canadians are confident that its membership is independent and that the members have been chosen in a non-partisan manner.”
You have two examples, of course. The Code of Silence Award is on one side. On the other side, you have the Auditor General very clearly expressing his preference for an independent body.
Very specifically, then, do you think the public shares that increasing concern around secrecy, whether it's the general government direction or MPs' expenses? And do you not feel it would be important to have independent oversight, like the Auditor General has so clearly stated as his preference?
Thank you, Chair. I appreciate that.
Thank you very much for your attendance today.
I'm going to start with another quote from the Auditor General, from yesterday. He said:
In particular, we noted that members of Parliament hold positions of trust and have responsibilities to their specific constituents and to Canadians in general that are considerable. In my opinion there are three fundamental elements that contribute to the fulfilment of these responsibilities. They are transparency, accountability, and good governance.
I'd just like to paint a picture for you and get your thoughts on whether you think it would be an improvement or not over what we have, and on any other holes in it that you see, or if perchance there are parts of it you like.
Right now, all the work of the BOIE is, for the most part, done in camera. You've acknowledged that most reasonable—if I can use that word—people will acknowledge there are some matters that do need to be in camera. We can articulate what those are: certainly people's medical records, legal circumstances, staff issues, and things like that, which really don't belong in the public domain because those people have rights.
What we're talking about is the potential for an organization, similar to what they've done in Britain, that would take all those issues that relate to MPs' expenses and running our offices and all the areas you're looking for, the line items and everything, and put them in this stand-alone agency.
Now, I've heard you say you really don't have a lot of thought as to who is making the decisions. I find that a little surprising, simply because there is an issue of arm's length. In terms of good governance, there are reasons that arm's-length bodies are created, and we're looking at this as an extension of that. One of the problems is that in BOIE debates, discussions, there can be partisanship. There won't be with people who are chosen from the public and there are criteria and it's a public application. The whole process of hiring these folks, actually, or appointing them is in law, and they actually have the regulations for that.
That would be a stand-alone body. They have no partisan interest. They have a stand-alone mandate and that mandate is to answer in this case to the Canadian people—the British people, in their case—on their monitoring and oversight of MPs' expenses and related matters.
You've acknowledged those in camera things. They started out in public. It's interesting. I think Tom mentioned they did start that way, and then they went in camera, which speaks to the issue that reasonable people will see times that you need to be in camera, and then they issue minutes. So they're in camera, not secret meetings.
However, on the flip side, by taking those things out of BOIE, I would suggest to you that it leaves a lot of other areas that are wide open to be public matters because we're debating them the same way as we debate anything. There are only certain times when you'd need to go in camera—security, and things of that nature—but for the most part, for the operation of the House and the building, there is not a lot of secrecy there. So it would actually, in the model I'm painting for you, provide the BOIE to have more of their meetings open, and to have a stand-alone agency that's accountable to the people directly and overseeing our wages, expenses, and related matters.
What are your thoughts on that picture?
Mr. Taylor-Vaisey, I'm going to challenge your profession a little bit here. I can understand completely what you're saying, and if I were in your profession I would probably be asking for the same thing. You're a journalist. You want to know. You want to gather information. You want to print information. You want to broadcast information. But I ask you to take, perhaps, a little self-critical look, because much of the information that is published now, frankly, is simply not reported upon.
Peter is talking with great pride about how he publishes, and has for seven years, all this information. Those are summary financials that are published with expenses for every MP. It's open to the public. It's open to journalists. I haven't seen, outside of one or two stories every second or third year, much concern or examination from journalists.
I gave the example a couple of meetings ago, and I will again—Kevin doesn't like this because I'm going to be picking on my friend, Ralph Goodale. It's quite clear in the financials on the travel expenses. Ralph and I both live in Regina, Saskatchewan. I live in Regina Beach; he's in Regina proper, but we both fly out of Regina to Ottawa and back. We both attend the same number of sessions of caucus. I'm here from Monday through Friday. Ralph is usually here Monday through Friday, but, amazingly, last year his travel expenses were over three times mine. His were about $122,000 and mine were $38,000. Do you know something? We never saw a story on that.
If all of this information is here, and if you're suggesting that the public is clamouring for this information—and maybe I'm mischaracterizing your words—why aren't you writing stories about the information you have now?
Thank you for being here.
As a former journalist, I can understand this concern about transparency. I can understand it even more now that I belong to a non-recognized party.
As I said earlier to Mr. Milliken, in the first seven years I was an MP, my party was represented on the Board of Internal Economy. I trusted my whip, who reported what he could to us. Not all the discussions were systematically made public, even for party caucuses.
Now I am in exactly your position, even though I have been an MP for nine years. I don't know much about what has happened in the past two years. The Board of Internal Economy brags about transparency, but even the MPs, particularly those whose parties are not recognized or who are independents, are suffering from the lack of transparency. This is especially true for journalists, even though they in some way represent the public. But the money being spent is taxpayers' money, who deserve to have watch dogs—pardon the expression—check what is going on and how the money is being spent. Yes, there is a lack of transparency, internally and externally.
However, although Mr. Milliken said that there were no major changes in his 10 years as Speaker, I have seen a change. More information is available now, online for example, but there is much more on each expenditure.
Would you be satisfied if, rather than indicate a bunch of expenditures and the amount an MP spent on travel, we said what the trip was, and where the MP went and when, for example? All that information is submitted to the auditor anyway. As far as I'm concerned, I don't have a problem with it, but the 307 other MPs should do the same. It shouldn't be up to each individual to decide what information to provide.
What additional information would be useful to you in doing your job?