Senator Paul Massicotte speaks at a press conference after the release of a Senate report that calls for the review of rail safety in Ottawa on Thursday, August 22, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle Canadian Press
Senate Liberals still aren’t fessing up to how much taxpayers spent on flights for their spouses.
The now independent Senate Liberal caucus recently posted its latest quarterly travel expenses and, same as last time, spousal travel expenses have been excluded. There are no set plans to reveal this information in the future.
“It makes you wonder if there’s a problem, whether someone’s been abusing the spousal travel provisions, and it doesn’t build public confidence,” said Gregory Thomas, federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.
Because they are often away from home, senators choose someone, most often a spouse, who can travel at taxpayers’ expense for a reunion. But the upper chamber’s travel policy also warns members to be fiscally responsible.
In February, some top-spending Conservative senators faced criticism when CBC reported expenses such as frequent pricey flights for their wives.
At the time, Senate Liberals were spared the spotlight because they hadn’t yet disclosed their expenses. When the Liberal Party finally posted its numbers on Feb. 24, it left out spousal travel for both MPs and senators.
That infuriated some, including Senate Liberal George Baker, who quickly declared, “To leave out your spousal travel is ridiculous, that's a part of your total expenditure.”
James Cowan, leader of the Senate Liberal caucus, suggested at the time his members could offer more in the future. "Will we include spousal travel or will we include other things? That's the discussion we're having now," he said.
But not much has changed. The Liberal Party expelled its senators earlier this year, and they’re now posting their own expenses.
“What we have decided to do as a Liberal Senate caucus is match what we had committed to when we were part of [the Liberal Party],” said Marc Roy, Cowan’s spokesman.
But the Liberal Party has upgraded its format and is now reporting spousal travel for MPs.
Senate Liberal Paul Massicotte said his caucus is committed to full transparency and has nothing to hide. Although his office co-ordinates expense reporting for his entire caucus, Massicotte admitted he didn’t know spousal travel was still being omitted. Now that he's aware, due to CBC’s inquiry, he said he plans to investigate.
“If it’s not complicated and I can get quick consensus, we’ll do so but I can’t confirm that at this point in time,” he said.
While Conservative senators appear to disclose spousal travel, they leave out other details. For example, most omit specific dates and some don’t list their per diems. Neither caucus posts travel per diems for spouses, a perk the Senate allows.
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation wants to see more detailed, uniform public disclosure for all senators. MPs already have such a plan in place for their travel and hospitality expenses.
Massicotte said all Senators had largely agreed to a standard public reporting format that would include spousal travel, but that it recently bit the dust because it was too expensive.
“Nobody wants to be accused of not being transparent, to be blunt. I mean, we’re so sensitive to that nowadays, especially in the Senate, but one has to be reasonable. We’re spending taxpayer money,” he said.
Massicotte wouldn’t reveal the price tag, but said the uniform system would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. He said the Senate will explore cheaper options in the fall.
Thomas is not concerned about cost. The federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation believes detailed public disclosure is invaluable and could have prevented previous Senate expense scandals.
“When you have corruption allegations and coverups and everything that goes with not disclosing expenses, the costs are astronomical,” he said.
Canada’s auditor general is currently conducting a detailed audit of how senators spend taxpayers’ money, including travel.