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Whiff of hypocrisy from 'detainee deal' undermines Parliament's position on expense accounts

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Canadian Parliamentarians would have had a lot more credibility when they claimed the Auditor General has no business auditing MPs' accounts if they’d had the courage last week to stand up to the prime minister on Parliament’s absolute right to see the so-called Afghan detainee documents.

But under the circumstances -- to wit, the surrender of the Parliamentary Liberal caucus to avoid a risky election fought on ground that could be advantageous to Prime Minister Stephen Harper -- their "principled" opposition to Auditor General Sheila Fraser's call to be permitted to audit the expense accounts of Members of Parliament looks self-interested and their explanations sound lame.

After all, it is really the same issue that is that the core of both arguments: the supremacy of Parliament.

In the case of the Auditor General's desire to scrutinize their accounts, the better to ensure that no MPs are having their moats cleaned at taxpayer expense, or whatever the Canadian equivalent of that British outrage might be, they wish to assert the supremacy of Parliament. Never mind that many taxpayers of all political stripes consider scrutiny by an impartial accountant to be a sensible and reasonable precaution against abuse.

In the case of the documents related to the treatment of Afghan prisoners of war by Canadian troops and the Afghan faction those prisoners were handed over to, and which MPs are quite obviously entitled to see, a majority of Parliamentarians are willing to reach a dangerous compromise to achieve a short-term political goal.

Prime Minister Harper's caucus, naturally, supported the denial of the documents to Canada's elected leaders because they are far more likely to contain potential political embarrassments for the Conservative Party than anything that might put Canadian security at risk. Conservative MPs' cries of patriotism and the safety of our soldiers abroad are nothing more than a refuge of scoundrels, as Dr. Johnson quite properly observed in other circumstances.

As for the Liberal caucus, under Opposition Leader Michael Ignatieff, they bowed to the wishes of our secretive and profoundly undemocratic prime minister because they calculated the odds of winning an election now on this issue were not in their favour, principles be damned. As Rabble blogger Murray Dobbin quite rightly pointed out in these pages, this creates a dangerous precedent.

Their actions were not so different from the American Democrats who voted against their principles in favour of president George Bush’s suppression of their countrymen's constitutional rights for reasons of political expediency, creating an ugly precedent of their own that lives on under an otherwise much better president.

Anyone interested in politics can understand the calculations that led to these decisions, but history is unlikely to hold any of their perpetrators in very high regard. Only MPs from the New Democratic Party and the Bloc Quebecois were prepared to stand up for the long-established right of Parliament to have these documents, uncensored.

Of course it is ironic that the first argument to be weakened by the Conservatives' and Liberals' dangerous precedent is the wish of members of all parties, except apparently the BQ, to keep Fraser's paws off Parliament's prerogatives.

After all, as will obviously be apparent to those many taxpayers who see common sense in the idea of independent scrutiny of MPs' expense accounts, there's more than a whiff of hypocrisy to Parliament's position on auditing in light of its unprincipled surrender on secrets that might embarrass the government.

As anyone can plainly see, they can't have it both ways!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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