Saturday, May 22, 2010

A Tale Of Two "Issues"

First off, I firmly believe MP's should let Fraser see the books, and politicians would be wise to stay ahead of this story, rather than resisting the inevitable. The issue aside, what I find entirely fascinating is the contrasting emphasis of most of the MSM, compared to another "grassroots" revolt, namely prorogation.

From the moment this audit story came to light, I sensed a rabid zeal amongst the media. Immediately, every outlet jumped on the story and gave it urgent and persistent coverage. Again, there is a genuine issue of transparency here, but I couldn't help but think part of the enthusiasm for this particular issue had a self interest component. I would also argue that part of the hesitation by politicians, is a recognition that full disclosure would result in the media swarming around the most salacious of details. I admit some concern that full disclosure would turn into a tabloid like witch hunt, rather than a sober, mature review. I'm sure there are some questionable practices, and I'm also sure that minor indiscretions would be blown up to biblical proportions. Not a stretch to think that anybody put under the microscope might reveal a wart or two- and I'm sure we could find a decadent desert on journalist expenses, if we looked hard enough. Conclusion, people aren't perfect, and some minor "abuse" is commonplace, in EVERY workplace.

We're hearing all this talk about MP's being inundated with angry phone calls from consitituents, Canadians talking about this issue in Tim Horton's across the country. We're also hearing about a grassroots revolt, akin to the prorogation question. Really? From what I've heard, a few calls to MP offices, but no evidence of a real uprising. To be fair, the facebook groups I've managed to find show PALTRY membership, comparing it to the organic, "despite the media" membership to proroguing is insulting.

When the prorogation issue began, it was largely dismissed by the MSM (with the obvious exceptions of course), as a inside the beltway, process laden issue that would never resonate. What was particularly troubling, the way our media independently passed judgement, and only when it became apparent, through a truly grassroots resistance, did any acknowledgement come- further, people remained sceptical up until the very moment that the rallies forced revision. Contrast that cynicism, with this enthusiastic embrace of the expense issue, and the immediate over blow on the grassroots front, and it's all very perplexing. I'm not intentionally belittling the reaction to date, but given the media thrust vs the media dismissal, it hardly compares to the prorogue unrest- at least to date anyways.

The reason why this particular issue has resonated with the media, and in so doing fueled any unrest in the land, is because of the DIRT, that's what you see when you peel the onion. I use the comparison with prorogue, because on that issue you had many fundamental democratic issues at play, one could argue of a far greater philosophical importance, and yet I didn't sense much in the way of media angst. Is it just that pouring over expenses is more sexy in a journalistic "story" sense? Human nature, being what it is, one can see the dog on a bone investment in this story. Is it really about transparency, or is it really about juicy details, maybe a scandal or two? Given the disconnect "reactions" within the MSM, on two issues, with entirely overlapping themes, one has to wonder what are the criteria which makes a story relevant, and why decidedly similar themes are arbitrarily and prematurely ignored.

36 comments:

DL said...

I agree with you 100% here Steve (you see I'm willing to give credit where credit is due).

I also think that this issue is totally a top-down media creation. News in slow in Ottawa right now and the newspapers know that much more papers get sold when there are shrieking above the fold headlines about so-and-s0 expensing a latte at Starbucks for a dollar more than if they had bought a coffee next door at Tim Hortons. Let's face it - if you're a political reporter - this dirt is wayyyyy more fun to write about that than - say - whether or not Canada should sign a free trade pact with Colombia. The anti-prorogation movement quickly had mass demonstrations and a facebook page with over 200,000 members. When I last checked, the facebook page devoted to demanding that Sheila Fraser audit MPs had 2,000 members (in other words nothing) - and this after the Toronto Star (which is looking more and more like the National Enquirer every day) literally ran a front page story a week ago imploring people to start a movement on this issue.

RuralSandi said...

I know CTV's Tom Clark is obsessed with this issue.

Gives it too much time to talk about (so does Solomon).

Clark gave a quicky little segment with a guy that's written about Laurier, his vision, and how 100 years later the Chretien/Martin government turned the country around. Not spicy enough and/or doesn't praise Cons.

I'd be more intertested in Fraser doing an emergency study on Harper's spending - Economic Plan, etc.

JimBobby said...

We all gave the MSM proper shit for failing to seize upon the prorogation issue. Their excuse was that they didn't think the public was politically astute enough to grasp the nuances of parliamentary protocol. They were wrong and they ended up admitting as much.

You don't have to be too politically astute to understand expense account sleaze, though. The issue comes hot on the heels of the UK's MP expenses scandal with homegrown provincial counterparts in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. The MSM doesn't have to wonder whether or not the public understands. We get it and they know it.

While I agree there are similarities between this issue and prorogation, there are major differences. Prorogation was all about ducking responsibility for the handing over of Afghan detainees to torture. I am one of those who have been on top of that issue for years but I know very well that it fails to strike a chord with many Canadians.

The A-G issue is all about money --- our money. Despite the fact that the amount pales in comparison to what we've squandered on an unwinnable and immoral war, it hits us close to home.

WRT the Facebook thing, there could be a couple of mitigating factors. First, the very fact that the MSM IS all over this issue makes it seem less important for individuals to get personally involved. This time around, the media is not ignoring the issue and perhaps would-be Facebook group members are sitting back and allowing the media to do its job and push for disclosure.

Secondly, the first and largest Facebook group is the creation of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, considered by many to be a right-wing lobby group. The anti-prorogation group was the creation of a non-partisan student and was truly a grassroots effort.

Perhaps partisanship is the biggest difference here. With prorogation, it was everyone against the ruling Conservatives. They only got 38% of the votes, after all. 62% voted against them and were not happy with the affront to democracy. There weren't too many card-carrying CPCers out on the streets on January 23. There were plenty of Liberals, Dippers and Greens.

In the expenses issue, highly partisan citizens -- card-carrying party members from all parties -- may be holding back. Ignatieff hasn't endorsed the protest. Neither has Layton. In fact, they are the ones we are protesting against, along with the Harper Conservatives. When the party faithful are being told that this isn't an issue by the party leaders and nearly every MP, party members are not too likely to join a Facebook group or take to the streets.

When the 4 parties finally struck a deal on the detainee documents, it was big news. The parties in this hitherto fractious parliament had been able to reach an agreement. The media was a bit surprised by the fact, as were many voters. Getting to the bottom of the torture allegations was secondary in the reportage. The all-party agreement on a divisive issue was the big story.

Jump ahead a couple weeks and there's parliamentary unanimity on another issue: MP expenses. Why shouldn't that be newsworthy? when the MPs solidarity is contrasted with the public's diametrically opposite solidarity, it's news.

(4,096 character limit. More coming...)

JimBobby said...

(continued)
Poll after poll after poll has found the MPs to be entirely out of step with public opinion. That's news and the media would be remiss in failing to report it. Remember, we faulted them severely for failing to pick up on the outrage around prorogation. Do they want to be accused of being out of touch yet again?

There is a big difference between journalists' expense accounts and MPs expense account. The MPs are spend our money. The MPs are our employees. The MPs are public servants. The MPs pledged accountability and transparency and we elected them and gave them our confidence. Abuse may be commonplace in every workplace but in this particular workplace, we are the employers. We have every right to see the books and we have every right to be outraged when MPs band together across party lines to hide them from us.

If we lose confidence in the media, we can quit buying newspapers. If we lose confidence in MPs of every party, we can live with it until the next election at which time we can choose between tweedle-crook and tweedle-crookeder.

Scandals are news. Scandal sell papers. So what? Would we rather bury our heads in the sand? There's a bigger scandal brewing regarding the detainees and I relish the moment that the media grabs it and runs with it. Crimes against expense accounts are scandalous, sure. War crimes and crimes against humanity are more scandalous and I won't fault the media for delving into such a scandal -- even if their motivation is to sell more papers.

DL said...

Polls shmolls. If you asked a 1000 Canadians if they agreed or disagreed that all elected officials should be burned at the stake in a public square - you'd probably get 80% saying agreeing - doesn't mean we should do it.

Maybe we should poll Canadians on what the PM's salary should be and watch Harper wage get cut from $350,000/year to about $50,000.

Steve V said...

We already have strict guidelines, so rampant abuse isn't even an issue. People act like these rules aren't in place, many receipts and whatnot are routinely rejected and scrutinized. These facts don't play into the storyline, and a distorted presentation is put forth.

I actually think the feedback is indicative. Despite the exaggerations, people aren't talking about MP expenses. Sure, we all agree in transparency, but this stuff about MP's being bombarded, feedback from Canadians overwhelming, I don't sense it. What is true, the media are unrelenting here, which is why I strongly advised staying ahead of this story and being open.

JimBobby said...

So, DL, do you think that most Canadians are happy with MPs refusing to be audited by the A-G? Since you don't trust opinion polls, what's your sense of public opinion and how did you arrive at it.

When I invited all of my Canadian Facebook friends to join the anti-prorogation group, about 25% did so. When I invited them to join the Make Canadian MP expenses public group, almost every one of them did so. When I kibbitz with my real life friends over at the dog park each morning, they're the ones bringing up politics; usually, it's me.

If you card-carrying LPC and NDP stalwarts want to believe that this outrage is a media invention and has no legs, go ahead. That'll just mean more Green votes in the next election.

Next week when Parliament resumes sitting, the MPs are going to reverse themselves. They'll find a face-saving way to do so but they will have no choice other than to capitulate. Why? Because public opinion is telling them they are dead wrong. Internal polling, letters, phone calls and emails from constituents are flooding their offices and nobody is supporting them. They will belatedly realize they were on the wrong side of this issue and clamour to try to appease the angry populace: their bosses... us.

Annie... said...

I know the opposition may have some interesting things to learn about..but the government will be the most interesting of all!!!
Harper will never budge because of the outcome.

Steve V said...

JB

You might be missing my point. This story does have legs, and will generate "outrage". What I'm saying, it's entirely media generated and sustained. This isn't a grassroots expression cornering their MP's, it's about DIRT. Don't get confused when it does morph because of all the coverage.

JimBobby said...

We already have strict guidelines,

Steve, I'm hate to say it but I'm disappointed with that response. It's straight out of the MPs talking points. We've all heard it and we aren't buying it. In the UK, they also had strict guidelines. Ditto Newfoundland. Ditto Nova Scotia.

We have strict guidelines for the handling of Afghan detainees. We have strict guidelines regarding personal income taxes. We have strict guidelines regarding driving while on the cell phone. We have strict guidelines regarding marital fidelity.

Guidelines are meaningless unless infractions are able to be uncovered and dealt with.

Personally, I think most MPs are honest and an audit will show as much. I have much less confidence in senators. I also think that the audits will reveal a few serious abuses. A radar speed trap doesn't mean every car is speeding but those who are flouting the law (and the guidelines) need to know that they cannot do so without consequence.

JimBobby said...

I don't really think I missed your point about the media driving the story.I believe I acknowledged as much. So what? Scandals are news and they're in the news business. They're doing their job.

When the media failed to do its job on the prorogation story, we faulted them. Now, they're doing their job and you're faulting them. Damned if they do, damned if they don't.

Steve V said...

JB

I don't claim to be an expert on the topic, but MP's have to submit their expenses for approval, so it's not like this is the wild west, wherein people are just blowing money on whatever they choose. The budgets are limited, some don't even exhaust their full expenditure.

I'm sorry, but with all the issues of the day, the singular fixation on a mostly hill of beans presentation is more media generated distraction, than serious pursuit. Are we trying to ensure that nobody wants to run for public office? They can't take a free ticket to a hockey game, we pay them the same salary as mid tier manager, everything they do is scrutinized, and yet we have another outrage to squeeze people even more. It's no wonder many talented people take a pass, because being a public servant ain't all it's cracked up to be.

Steve V said...

" Now, they're doing their job and you're faulting them."

The question is, why are they doing their job? Is it because of a serious commitment, or is it the lure of possible STENCH. Here's the hesitation for me, I don't want two months more of Guergis like distraction, as everyone forgets about other issues, so we can bombard the public with daily details of how a certain MP tried the 10 year old scotch one night. If there are serious infractions, fine, but I suspect we will get caught up on the relative trivial, in the grand scheme.

Steve V said...

I will say to, I have no doubt your concern is entirely genuine and purely philosophical in nature.

RuralSandi said...

Advertisements contain the only truths to be relied on in a newspaper - Mark Twain

JJ99 said...

Steve these are not "modest expenses".

Take a look at the numbers yourself:
http://www.parl.gc.ca/information/about/process/house/GeneraLInformation/MembersExpenses-2008-2009-e.pdf
see here

Gary Goodyear spends $75,000 on printing?
Some Toronto MPs spending MORE on travel than the Yukon and some BC MPs? Others spending half as much?
An MP spending over $125,000 on travel is nothing to scoff at.

These expenses tell us something, but for all your talk of media manufacture, how many articles have you seen that gave the actual link above?

But there is a A LOT these numbers do NOT tell us

How many MPs are flying first class?

How many MPs are using their expenses accounts to pay for travel to attend political fundraisers in far corners of the country? The rules say they get 64 return trips between Ottawa and ANYWHERE in Canada, it doesn't have to be their constituency.

How many MPs flew on the taxpayer dime to enjoy the Vancouver Olympics?

These are not matters like simply expensing a shampoo, we are talking about $500 million dollars total in expenses here.

I could care less about trivial expenses that were under $100, but any MP that buys first-class flights to partisan or non-constituency matter related events and bills the taxpayer may be obeying the guidelines but is that the way it SHOULD be?

Or do you think such concerns are trivial Steve?

If MPs have nothing to hide, then why are ANY MPs resisting the Auditor General doing her job?

Steve V said...

"How many MPs flew on the taxpayer dime to enjoy the Vancouver Olympics?"

Actually, in this silly politically correct country, MP's weren't even allowed to accept tickets.

Trivial is right.

JJ99 said...

Steve under the rules, MPs could buy their own ticket (and yes some were there), but expense the flight to taxpayers. What's the cost of a first class flight to Vancouver again just for the purposes of the Olympics?

What about the other issues?
Is it warranted in your view if a Ontario Conservative MP travels from Ottawa to Vancouver purely for a fundraiser on the taxpayer dime? What about doing six or seven of such fundraisers on first-class tickets?

$125,000 in travel expenses on the taxpayer dime for a Toronto area MP is no big deal? Why do Toronto MPs pay half as much? Or is $50,000 in money saved trivial?

$75,000 in printing costs trivial? When some spend only a few thousand?

What about those that claimed thousands of dollars in "Other"?

Steve V said...

Did it ever dawn on you that a Toronto MP might want to visit THE REST OF THE COUNTRY as part of his/her portfolio? It's a big country, and an even BIGGER world.

As for first class, if they need to get work done, I have no qualms whatsoever. These people, and the media will acknowledge, work tirelessly, so no I'm not going to get all uppity over every little thing.

As for flying out to the Olympics, call me old fashioned, but having our national representatives attend the games isn't exactly OUTRAGEOUS.

Sheesh, if this is the type of crap we must digest for two months, I'll pass thanks.

Dan F said...

I am starting to get annoyed with the whole notion of referring to government funds as "our money". We are paying for a set of services with this money that I don't feel are any different from any other set of goods or services. According to free-market principles, if I want to choose to live in a different place, there is a different cost and I am free to choose where to live, and how much to pay for the bundle of services that I receive. If I think the money is being misused after I pay it, I should have as much right to examine the expense accounts of the folks in charge as I do with any other entity to which I pay out.

There are no other goods or services that we purchase, that after we hand over payment continue to refer to the funds paid as "our money". It is merely a notion created by right-wingers to diminish the value of government.

JJ99 said...

Ok Steve, but does making these expenses public not avoid outright abuse?

Under the rules, someone could buy a $10,000 plasma screen TV for their office. Who cares I guess?

They can fly their staffers in for a party and then send them home within 24 hours.

They can classify any expense as "Other".

I'm sorry but at a time of massive deficit, I do believe that thousands of dollars are not trivial.

MPs are paid $156,000 a year minimum. They get 64 return trips across Canada a year for them and their staffers. I'm sorry but it's not to much to ask that they tell us what they spent $200,000 in expenses on (look at that link again many MPs claimed over $200,000 in expenses in addition to their salary and some of these don't live too far from Ottawa).

If the media quibble over some people's expenses, these politicians are big boys, I'm sure they can handle it.

Cabinet ministers are already exposed to far more invasiveness, we in fact DO know far more about what they are spending on meals, etc.... If they can manage, why can't our MPs?

Fred from BC said...

Steve V said...

Here's the hesitation for me, I don't want two months more of Guergis like distraction, as everyone forgets about other issues, so we can bombard the public with daily details of how a certain MP tried the 10 year old scotch one night.


That's the real bottom line here, and weren't you the guy saying that very same thing more than a month ago? There are one or two other Liberal bloggers on the same page, but for the most part they all side with the MP's and news media who inexplicably dropped everything else to pursue this story with a passion rarely seen today; they've done the same with the Afghan detainee thing and a couple of other issues.

The problem is, they seem reluctant to let go even when the polls show that the Canadian public isn't jumping on board...as if they are either afraid to 'lose face' by backing down, or think that if they continue to hang on they will eventually discover the Smoking Gun that brings the Conservative government crashing down. Not a winning strategy so far, and worse still they don't seem to be learning anything from their failures thus far.

The NDP, of all people, have been trying to move the discussions to topics more in tune with the mood of the public, but in my opinion they simply lack the credibility to make it happen. Too bad, really...because they are quite right: there are many more important things that we should be looking at and spending our time and energies on...

Steve V said...

JJ

I don't disagree with the spirit, more the type of examples you gave. Is this going to be a serious initiative, or will it turn in to a distraction, that looks like a witch hunt?

Fred

I believe I said the opposition would get zero traction on the Guergis matter. As for the detainee question, the only reason it became such an issue, is because the gov't fought tooth and nail, even when the opposition was offering compromise, pre-prorogue I might add. I believe that is a fundamental issue, that the opposition was obligated to pursue.

JJ99 said...

Ok Steve fair point. In truth I think that in the long-run it would help restore some trust. I'm guessing if expenses were made public, you find 5-6 MPs at most having been found (in the media's view) to have made some some inappropriate expenditures. Those people can surely defend themselves once it's all out in the open and Canadians (not the media I know) are a forgiving people. And wouldn't it be good to show that the other 300 MPs actually were totally above board. The thing with the apperance of wanting to hide it all is that it feeds an impression that's a large number of MPs abusing the system when I'm sure it's not the case.
Put it out all out there, some people might get hurt, but in the long run it will keep them all honest I think and lessons will be learned.

Tomm said...

Really enjoyed the post and the comments.

There is a lot of meat in the words being used.

I think we can all agree that the media is extremely powerful and can draw our attention toward something and draw our attention away from something else with considerable ease. I can see this as one of the clearer lessons here.

Also, I think it is telling that there is a right ~ left thing going on with the issue. Open books is very libertaian. It is more conservative to ask what the MPs are doing with the public purse than it is left wing. There is a least one comment here that speaks to this. This affects the coverage of it and the "gut" part of the reaction.

Thirdly, it is interesting the way the different parties are responding to this. Both Harper and Ignatieff addressed this issue and both addressed it very differently. It speaks to how they function as leaders. Harper essentially challenged "parliament" to settle its own house affairs. Ignatieff led with a very different comment. We would probably have a good discussion on which response was preferred. The differences were certainly telling.

This issue won't go away and quite frankly the media will work harder than any other story to not let this die. They want to peel this onion because the stories will write themselves and the media loves the dirty laundry. They even get to pick which laundry they wave around.

La-Z-Boy journalism.

RuralSandi said...

You can see the problem already. Some are looking at certain expenses and making judgment, just like the media would do.

Fraser wants to do an analysis of value for money spent - I think that's a great idea.

I would think it more appropriate to (if she's allowed) wait for her analysis before jumping all over it.

To me, it's already out of control as far as judgment is concerned.

Steve V said...

I think you see the first signs of the nonsense already today. Weston describes Milliken's Parliament apartment "luxurious", which Kady disputes, calling it "handy".

Tomm said...

I could be that Milliken is the guy with the "moat".

If so, his credibility melts away.

Didn't Szabo say something about legal expenses for defense against harrassment suits by somebody or other?

I think it would be that kind of hidden expense that would be the big wild card.

DL said...

"Fraser wants to do an analysis of value for money spent - I think that's a great idea."

In terms of "value for money" she might conclude that we would get more value for money if we had no parliament at all and simply had a military dictatorship!

The media will try to beat up this issue until another issue comes along...

Omar said...

First off, I firmly believe MP's should let Fraser see the books..

Lets do the math. Approximately 300 MPs spent approximately $500 million in expenses above and beyond their mandated salaries. That works out to be an average of $1.6 million per Member of Parliament. That is an outrageous number that needs to be accounted for and partisanship should play absolutely no role. I get so tired of these people saying one thing to Canadians and then doing quite the other. Open the books and lets just see who is the honest broker and who is not. If what just happened here in Nova Scotia is any indication there is going to be a whole lot of 'splainin to do.

DL said...

no, the $500 million is the total cost of Parliament. That includes the salaries of all MPs and Senators and their staff and all the people who work on parliament hill in administration and security and all the expenses claimed by MPs. etc...

We could save lots of money by shutting down Parliament and making Harper dictator for life - like his role model Oliver Cromwell.

Omar said...

oops, my bad. 500 million pardons :/

JJ99 said...

Steve what's your view on this?

http://www.ctvbc.ctv.ca/servlet/an/local/CTVNews/20100525/bc_hiebert_spending_100525/20100525?hub=BritishColumbia
(here)


Are there many private companies that let their workers fly their wife AND children around with them wherever they go? Why should the taxpayer fund it? Yet the rules as they are completely allow it.

I understand that it's hard for an MP to leave their family behind when they go to Ottawa, but it's not like they are paid a poor salary ($158,000 a year absolutely dwarfs the national average), they can certainly afford to bring them on their own dime as anyone in the private sector would have to in similar circumstances. If we send the message that ALL MPs can do this and that's just fine, then you'd see MILLIONS more expensed for what in reality just amounts to creating more comfort for the MP, but not any actual extra work done as part of their duties.

Steve V said...

I think those photos of his cute baby, will really draw the ire of the public.

Fred from BC said...

Steve V said...


I believe I said the opposition would get zero traction on the Guergis matter.

And you were correct. Beats me why the politicians,the MSM and most Liberal/NDP bloggers couldn't figure that out...

As for the detainee question, the only reason it became such an issue, is because the gov't fought tooth and nail,

Also true, but in that case I don't think they had any choice. Looking at some of the juvenile antics of some opposition MPs (in particular the NDP, given their unceasing opposition to our presence in Aghanistan) I would certainly think twice about trusting them with any potentially sensitive information, especially anything that might involve the Americans..."loose lips" and all that...

Möbius said...

Are there many private companies that let their workers fly their wife AND children around with them wherever they go?

No, not in my experience. I travel frequently, and occasionally my wife will join me, but her costs are separated from mine and paid for by me. Private companies do not generally allow expensing of spousal travel because of CRS rules. I also do not travel business class 99% of the time. Those seats are taken by people with money, and politicians!

I also do not claim trivial expenses, like gum or coffee, but some colleagues do.

For MP's, I can see some differences, in that they are travelling from Ottawa to their various ridings, and are separated from family.

Paying for business class on flights less than 4 or 5 hours is an unnecessary expense. The price can triple (or worse).

Some private businesses do allow limited paid travel for seconded persons and families to their home country.