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A wonkish look at how MPs identify primary and secondary residences

Former MP Jason Kenney, now the leader of the United Conservative Party Opposition (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Members of the Canadian Parliament like Jason Kenney in the days he was MP for Calgary Midnapore are permitted to charge expenses for a secondary residence, either in the National Capital Region (NCR) or within 100 kilometres of the riding they represent.

To avail themselves of this benefit, MPs like Kenney, who is now leader of Alberta's Opposition United Conservative Party, must declare either their home in the NCR or their residence in or near their riding to be their primary residence.

Kenney, as is now widely known thanks to the efforts of Alberta-born Ottawa lawyer Kyle Morrow over the weekend, declared a suite in the basement of his parents' home in Calgary, and later a room in the basement of his widowed mother's retirement village in the same city, to be his primary residence during the time he was an MP.

During his time in Ottawa, as we know from Morrow's tweeted commentary as well as media reports, Kenney charged expenses of approximately $900 a month for a secondary residence in Ottawa. A Global News report from 2009 indicated that Kenney purchased a condo, then valued at slightly in excess of $500,000, within walking distance of Parliament Hill. Kenney's chief of staff says the UCP leader no longer owns that Ottawa condo.

As Kenney said in a statement on social media responding to Morrow's commentary, he paid rent to his parents and later his mother for his primary residences, although he seems not to have spent much time at the one in the retirement community. He visited Calgary only four times during a one-year period for which Morrow provided data.

According to the House of Commons Members Allowance and Services Manual, "a primary residence is defined as a residence other than a seasonal or recreational dwelling or a recreational vehicle, that is ordinarily occupied by the Member, and available for the Member's occupancy at all times. The main purpose of a primary residence cannot be to generate income."

"A secondary residence is defined as a residence of the Member, other than a seasonal or recreational dwelling or a recreational vehicle that is maintained by the Member in addition to the Member's primary residence," the manual says.

As well as those definitions, the Members Allowances and Services Manual suggests guidelines for MPs to help them determine which residence is their primary home if it is not immediately clear.

"The primary residence is occupied by the Member more often than the other residence," the guidelines say. "The primary residence is where the Member most frequently resides on weekends and holidays (the Member's travel patterns between Ottawa and the constituency will also be considered)."

By this rule of thumb, it would seem clear that Kenney declared the wrong residence to be his primary residence.

However, as is often the case in such matters, things are not as clear as they may first appear.

The next three points in this section of the manual have to do with where the Member's spouse or partner and dependent children live and attend school. Since Kenney has none of the above, these are not helpful.

The final two points in this section of the manual are that "the primary residence is the one declared on the Member's income tax return, and is located in the province where the Member votes and pays income taxes," and in addition is "in the province or territory where the Member has public health coverage, and where the Member's driver's licence is issued and vehicle registered."

Under these guidelines, Kenney would appear to have selected the correct residence to be his primary residence.

"In situations where both residences could potentially qualify as the primary residence, Members should contact Financial Management Operations for advice," the manual states.

Matt Wolf, Kenney's chief of staff in Edmonton, said yesterday in an email that Kenney did contact Financial Management Operations for advice about his arrangements and "no concerns were raised over that period."

"Of course Jason listed Calgary as his primary residence, given that it was his home," Wolf said in response to my query. "The House of Commons understands flexibility is necessary," he added, in recognition of the fact members of Cabinet have additional duties. "A one-size-fits-all approach (is) unrealistic given the vastly different responsibilities some MPs have."

Nevertheless, it would seem that this was even confusing to Kenney at times, since he evidently forgot he wasn't an Ontario resident when, according to Elections Ontario, he donated $399 to Premier Doug Ford's Progressive Conservative Party. (The UCP says it was a registration fee, not a donation.)

It is fortunate for Kenney -- and, I suppose, unfortunate for the Ontario tax department -- that things unfolded as they they did, since taxes in Alberta under Premier Rachel Notley's NDP government are lower than those in Ontario.

I suspect that in Kenney's shoes most of us would not have declared an elderly parent's retirement home as either a primary or secondary residence if we only used it for occasional visits. But the Members Allowances and Services Manual is silent on whether an MP with only one residence may submit expenses for a residence in Ottawa, although it would seem unlikely this would be permitted.

If, for all practical purposes, Kenney used his secondary residence as his primary residence, and his primary residence was not really his residence at all, but rather merely a place where he occasionally couch surfed, Morrow was asking an entirely legitimate question when he tweeted: "Why was Jason Kenney … entitled to a (taxpayer-funded) residence subsidy of $900/month when he only visited his riding four times?"

Morrow has referred this question to the Board of Internal Economy (BOIE), the office that oversees expenditures by Members of Parliament.

Nevertheless, it seems likely the BOIE will eventually tell Morrow that no rules were broken -- just as no rules turn out to have been broken by Alberta MLA Derek Fildebrandt when he rented his tax-subsidized Edmonton apartment on Airbnb and the rules broken by Senator Mike Duffy concerning his residence on Prince Edward Island seem to have come with extenuating circumstances.

If this turns out to be the case, though, the House of Commons may want to tighten its rules concerning expenses for secondary residences to protect Canadian taxpayers.

As a former CEO of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which describes itself as a "tax watchdog," surely Kenney would have no problem with that!

Two more NDP MLAs say they won't seek re-election

Calgary-North West MLA Sandra Jansen, the high-profile former Progressive Conservative leadership candidate who crossed the floor to join Premier Rachel Notley's NDP government, and Strathcona-Sherwood Park MLA Estefania Cortes-Vargas, one of the first three openly gay MLAs in the province's history, have announced they will not seek re-election this year.

Both faced difficult re-election contests in their constituencies, although as with all MLAs who make a decision to leave politics in an election year, that may not have been their only consideration. In the fall of 2017, Jansen was appointed to cabinet by Notley as minister of infrastructure, and was seen at one point as a key part of the NDP's re-election strategy for Calgary.

As my colleague Dave Cournoyer noted, while some journalists have commented on the number of NDP MLAs indicating they will not seek re-election so far this year as if it were high, the actual number of planned MLA retirements in this election cycle is about normal, and slightly below the final tally of each of the past three elections.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Photo: David J. Climenhaga

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