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Parliamentary Expenses And The Vice Of Indignation In Britain And Canada

May 29, 2010

Probably because I often look at the British media, my reaction to the ongoing clamour for an audit of the Canadian parliamentary budget has been a sense of vague foreboding. In the UK, the issue of parliamentary expenses exploded about a year ago, when the Telegraph began publishing leaked details of expense claims by individual MPs. Not surprisingly, some MPs had been taking considerable liberties with the rules governing what could be legitimately claimed, and the rules were apparently pretty generous in the first place.

The resulting public outrage, enthusiatically fanned by the media, was enormous. The story dominated the news for months. People were understandably both angry and fascinated, considering what certain unscrupulous politicians had been doing (or at least attempting to do) with taxpayers’ money in a tough economy. One Sir Peter Viggers famously tried to claim the cost of a floating duck house. Douglas Hogg claimed “the cost of having a moat cleared”. I have to admit to a bit of schadenfreude in the case of Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary and a nasty, prissy piece of work at the best of times. When she wasn’t conspiring to foist compulsory ID cards on the British people, she was out to improve their morals by toughening the classification of cannabis (in the face of scientific advice), tightening the UK’s already illiberal prostitution laws, and banning “extreme” pornography. It was quite satisfying to read that this puritan par excellence had been hounded out of office over dubious expenses claims – including one for pay-per-view “adult” movies that were apparently watched by her hapless husband Richard Timney.

Except in the special case of Smith, however, I thought the sheer amount of venom directed towards MPs over the expenses scandal was wildly disproportionate. Waste of public money is always regrettable, and venality (particularly in the powerful and well-off) is always distasteful, but I found it hard not to believe that Britain had bigger and more important things to worry about. In hindsight, the episode reminds me of a couple of sentences in A.S. Byatt’s magnificent Babel Tower:

May I say, my lord, that the “English vice” is not what it is always said to be, but precisely indignation. We get furiously upset about everything – the price of stamps, the state of public lavatories, the behaviour of schoolboys and politicians, the weather, books that are written with the heart’s blood and fuelled by real passion.

Unfortunately, I suspect that we Canadians inherited a fair measure of that same vice from the British motherland. Our media are already displaying plenty of indignation over Parliament’s reluctance to submit to auditing, so heaven knows how they would react to evidence that Canadian MPs had been building duck houses or watching adult movies at taxpayers’ expense. Worse yet, around 85% of Canadians are apparently “upset about the refusal to be audited” on the part of Parliament.

I’m part of the dissenting 15%, in that I’m upset only about the fact that parliamentary expenses have emerged as a political issue. Metaphorically speaking, I’m sure that some Canadian MPs have taxpayer-funded duck houses, but the problem needs to be kept in perspective. Parliament’s entire annual budget is $530 million, which sounds impressive except that that figure is less than 0.2% of the federal government’s total expenditure ($280.5 billion budgeted for 2010-2011) and works out to about $16 per Canadian per year. So how much of “my” $16 is being wasted on expenses that are unjustified, or even fraudulent? I’d be astonished if the answer were as high as $5, but even if it were $10 I wouldn’t be too bothered. We simply have more significant problems in this age of climate change, financial anguish, shifting global power, and clashing civilisations.

If I could order an audit of Parliament, it would be an audit based on political and intellectual integrity.  MPs would be asked to articulate their vision for Canada and its place in the world, and then required to demonstrate how their actions in Parliament had contributed to realising that vision. If our politicians came out of that procedure looking good, I frankly wouldn’t begrudge them the odd duck house or adult film.  And if they came out of it looking hypocritical or ineffectual, as I expect would generally be the case, no amount of fiscal rectitude would do much to bolster my opinion of them.

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