Recently, most of our federal politicians have been kicking and screaming like little children at the prospect of letting the Auditor General investigate Parliament's $533 million in annual spending. Thankfully, provincial politicians in Saskatchewan had the opposite reaction when the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) called for improved transparency for their expenses.
Talk about a refreshing change. Instead of trying to mislead the public and cloud the issue like the gang in Ottawa did, both parties at the Legislature appear to be quite open to improving transparency on how they're spending our money.
Specifically, the CTF recently called for placing MLA expense details on the Internet just like the City of Toronto does. Right now the City of Toronto's administration scans every receipt handed in by councillors and places them online for all to see. Doing so ensures Toronto's elected officials are accountable for expenses to their bosses - the voters.
Fortunately, Sask Party MLA Don Morgan and NDP MLA Kevin Yates both indicated an interest in placing MLA expenses online. Their support probably comes in part from the fact that MLA expenses from both parties appear to be pretty clean. Further disclosure would be unlikely to produce a politician expense scandal similar to the one in the United Kingdom and Nova Scotia.
However, while Saskatchewan's system is better than what they have in Ottawa, there is room for improvement. First, while MLA expense information is compiled and available at the Legislature and in constituency offices for public viewing, if someone wants to make an anonymous inquiry they have to trek all the way down to the Legislature to do it. Placing the documents that are already compiled online would be an easy first step to improving transparency province-wide.
Second, as the information currently available often lacks details, more information should be provided. For example, the description for a $1,696 expense put through by one MLA read "Sony camcorder & home theater"[sic]. While such a description conjures up a picture of leather couches, surround-sound and a video projector in an MLAs office, the MLA in question responded to the CTF that it was actually for a $1,200 video camera and $300 wall mount for a TV.
That brings us to a third problem - if you want greater details on what is being expensed, you have to ask the MLA for the information; the Legislative Assembly doesn't have the authority to disclose further details. Unfortunately such requests aren't always met with open arms.
The CTF recently made requests to nine MLAs to see their receipts for everything from $900 office chairs to a $900 TV and only two responded.
Changing the province's Freedom of Information Act to include all Legislative Assembly expenses would allow taxpayers, the media and government watchdog groups to get a better handle on what our MLAs are expensing. Further, it would allow us to see how both caucuses are spending a combined $2 million annually.
Clearly the provincial system isn't perfect, but it's reassuring to see Saskatchewan MLAs are open to improving it. Had our politicians in Ottawa responded in the same accountable manner, maybe they wouldn't have seen the backlash they did from the public.