“Following careful consideration, the auditor general will not be invited to conduct a performance audit of the House of Commons”
– A parliamentary statement released last Thursday afternoon
There was a time when the above statement made sense. It was a time when accounts were kept on paper, when copying and shipping such papers was expensive and time consuming, and when the number of people who would have gone through a giant binder of accounts would have been quite small.
In such an era, auditors had a unique role – they represented the interests of the public since the public could not review the books themselves. Thus, picking the auditor mattered. Since this person would be one of the few people with the time, resources, and access to review MP’s accounts, it became a powerful and politically sensitive position. The public demanded someone they could trust, the politicians – justifiably – wanted to ensure that this person would not abuse their role by shedding light on certain members or applying standards unevenly. Hence, choosing who would see the books mattered, since few people, if anyone, would review the work of the auditor.
So should Parliament acquiesce to the auditor general and hand over their books to her? She meets all the standards set above so the answer seems like it should be yes. But it isn’t. the auditor general does not oversee parliament, and she should not receive special access, nor should we begin to establish precedent that she does.
We don’t live in an era described above. Today, the accounts are kept in a digital format. It should be easy to convert them to Microsoft Excel or another computer format. They could be posted online where anyone could download and look at them at no cost. And, as the Guardian newspaper proved last year, thousands and thousands of people would be interested in using their computers to analyze and write about them.
What Parliament should do is hand their expense accounts over to everyone. Indeed, I am today making that formal request: I would like Parliament to invite Canadian taxpayers – the people who vote for them, who pay their salaries, and who cover their expenses – to review their books. Please take all the expenses and post them online. Today.
As in the United Kingdom I am confident that many Canadians will take an interest in the accounts. The Guardian asked people to help review the accounts and ordinary citizens from across the UK found a number of unusual claims. Others took the information about expenses and visualized it in interesting ways, ways that allowed citizens to better understand how their money was being spent.
Would the process be painful for MPs? Possibly for some. Would it lead to a clamp down on MP’s expenses? I have my doubts. I think most people recognize that MPs engage in a tremendous amount of travel and, more importantly, want their MPs to use these funds to educate themselves, conduct research, think independently and, of course, better represent their constituents. But there will be little or no money for these important activities if people feel that expense accounts get used up on other activities.
More importantly, posting MP’s accounts could reduce the likelihood of misspending in the future – a truly good outcome. Our goal shouldn’t be to catch problems after the fact, but to prevent them in the first place. Knowing that constituents will be able to see one’s expenses can be a more effective constraint than any ethics or spending guideline. Indeed, this is the same argument I made around why publicly accessible charitable receipts should be downloadable as such an act might have saved taxpayers $3.2 Billion. Here the stakes are smaller, but no less important.
In the end, as this is our government, this is also our money, and these are our documents. Parliament, we would like you to invite us to see what is already ours, so that we can collectively do our own analysis. If the auditor-general wants to do hers as well… power to her. But we agree that you are not accountable to her. You are accountable to us.