COLUMN: Shining the light on politicians' expenses no big deal

Diane Strandberg is a reporter with the Tri-City News. - TRI-CITY NEWS
Diane Strandberg is a reporter with the Tri-City News.
— image credit: TRI-CITY NEWS

The foot-dragging over the online posting of MLAs' detailed expenses is about to come to end.

It's about time.

Today, when, thanks to Twitter, your MLAs manage to get the word out about every ribbon cutting and fundraiser they attend, surely they can find the time to properly account for their spending of taxpayers' dollars.

Besides, it makes no sense to hide these things.

People expect the worst if you don't lay the books wide open. And when the average voter's entitlements are shrinking like Arctic ice, it's even more important for politicians to be fully transparent about their perks and privileges — and even get rid of some of them.

Maybe there was a time — say, pre-2007, when MLAs were making about $76,100 (base, without ministerial top-ups) — when it was acceptable to take a companion on a political trip. Now, it's hard to justify the extra cost when the province's basic education needs aren't being met and when health care funding can barely keep up with costs.

A B.C. MLA's base rate is now $101,859, which is in the executive range, and is well ahead of the median B.C. family income of $69,150 (2011 StatsCan), so those perks are harder to justify.

To recap, Finance Minister Mike de Jong has promised to post the online receipts for travel, accommodation, food and other expenses by B.C.'s 85 elected MLAs on the province's website. For a short period, this generated some controversy as some MLAs wondered what all the fuss was about while others thought the task of recording these expenses was onerous.

Some appear to think the paperwork is labour intensive but so is democracy, and the way to get people interested in something is to show how much they have to pay for it.

A case in point is the efforts by the cities of Port Moody and Port Coquitlam to post civic politicians' detailed expenses online. PoCo started putting theirs on the web a couple of months ago and Port Moody followed suit last week.

It makes sense. Who doesn't want to know who's frugal and who is wining and dining at taxpayers' expense?

I would bet plenty of Tri-City parents would like to see the detailed expenses of senior members of staff and trustees of School District 43, where $13.4 million — and 150 jobs — was just cut from the budget to save money.

I would also argue that posting the expenses would take some of the wind out of the sails of those who always complain that politicians and senior officials are spendthrifts.

In fact, this is exactly what happened to me when I started to poke around in the expense accounts of Port Moody politicians. At first, I was excited to look at the detailed — and I mean detailed (even parking receipts are photocopied and dutifully posted) — expenses and found a whole lot of no big deal.

Admittedly, I got bored of the exercise after looking at the expense records of only Mayor Mike Clay and Coun. Diana Dilworth. But in that cursory search, there was no $16 orange juice a la former Conservative MP Bev Oda, who was roundly lambasted for an expensive 2011 trip to London at taxpayers' expense. And even Dilworth's three days at the Renaissance for a Federation of Canadian Municipalities convention seemed within the bounds of acceptability — although not exactly Motel 6.

And that should be the point. I could check it out and satisfy my curiosity and my frustration at the industry of entitlement that has grown up around government officials but now may be pared down.

At a time when most people are being asked to do more with less, to reduce their retirement and pay expectations, and to pay off huge university loans, seeing what politicians get and being able to make a judgement should be part of the give and take between those who govern and those who pay the bills.



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