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Parties in Commons jockey to claim ethical high ground in sitting of scandals

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

OTTAWA - As the clock ticks down on a scandal-saturated parliamentary sitting, the three main parties are jockeying to claim the ethical high ground.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair used a speech Tuesday to cast his party as the ethical antidote to Conservative and Liberal corruption. He painted the two "old-line parties" as tired, unaccountable, self-serving and corrupted by the pursuit of power.

Yet an hour later, New Democrat MPs faced accusations of self-serving partisan behaviour after they stymied a bid by Leader Justin Trudeau to open up MPs' expenses to public scrutiny.

The NDP refused the required unanimous consent to approve four motions presented by Trudeau, which would have required MPs to post online their travel and hospitality expenses as well as the details of the way in which they spend their office budgets.

His motions also included a call for regular performance audits of the House of Commons administration by the auditor general and the development of public guidelines to "ensure proper spending."

New Democrat MPs said no to all four of Trudeau's motions and promptly followed up with a motion of their own, aimed at embarrassing the Liberal leader, who has earned tens of thousands of dollars — over and above his MP's salary — as a public speaker.

NDP House Leader Nathan Cullen called on the board of internal economy, which oversees the financial administration of the Commons, to investigate MPs' potential use of free travel points to get to privately-paid speaking engagements.

Cullen's motion received unanimous consent from MPs, including Trudeau, who said he's never used parliamentary resources for anything other than parliamentary business.

"I have absolutely nothing to hide," Trudeau said outside the Commons.

"I've tried to raise the bar on transparency and they again continue to try and score points and play politics and I'm serious about making changes to this place that will restore Canadians' confidence."

For his part, Cullen accused Trudeau of indulging in theatrics rather than working consensually with other parties on the secretive internal economy board to toughen the rules governing MPs' expenses.

"Work with us, don't do stunts. You want to be serious about this, we'll be serious but no stunts to try to improve transparency," said Cullen, adding that the board has been working on new rules for a year.

Trudeau retorted:"I would love to be able to co-ordinate with Mr. Cullen or anyone on the government side on doing it together ... but I'm not going to wait for them anymore."

He added that Liberal MPs will begin posting their expenses online in the fall, whether or not other parties agree to do the same.

Treasury Board President Tony Clement said Conservative MPs supported Trudeau's motions and will push the board of internal economy to adopt more stringent rules on transparency of MPs' expenses.

"Our position is going to be, No. 1, that we should in fact, as members of Parliament, have the same proactive disclosure on travel and meals and those kinds of things as cabinet ministers have," Clement said.

"And our position is also that the board of internal economy itself, for most matters, should be open to the public and to scrutiny."

The focus on MPs' expenses comes in the wake of a months-long scandal over the expenses of four unelected senators — former Conservatives Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau and former Liberal Mac Harb.

The scandal has rocked the Conservative government to its core, particularly since last month's revelation that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's chief of staff, Nigel Wright, personally gave Duffy $90,000 to enable him to reimburse the Senate for his invalid expense claims.

Harb's involvement in the scandal has inflicted some damage on the Liberals as well.

The NDP, which has long favoured abolition of the chamber and has no New Democrat senators, has been trying to paint the Conservatives and Liberals as two peas in a corrupt pod — a message Mulcair stepped up on Tuesday.

"What we're seeing in Ottawa today reflects the worst in Canadian politics," he said in a speech to the Canadian Club of Ottawa.

"It's not just that any one government or member of Parliament is corrupt. It's that the old-line parties themselves have become corrupted. They've become tired, complacent, they feel entitled."

By contrast, Mulcair maintained the NDP has retained its energy and its idealism — perhaps, he seemed to suggest, because it's never won power federally and, therefore, has not been corrupted by it.

"What New Democrats are offering is a positive, progressive vision based on our shared values," he said.

"Its a vision that turns the page from the tired and corrupted record of successive Conservative and Liberal governments and builds for the future."

Mulcair contended the Conservatives have become part of the culture of entitlement their precursors in the Reform party rode into Ottawa to change.

"Step by step, the old Reform-turned-Conservative party has turned its back on its own ideals in the pursuit of power," he said, echoing the complaint of Alberta MP Brent Rathgeber as he quit the Tory caucus last week.

Mulcair didn't mention Trudeau by name but he contended the Grits have become so dominated by corruption that they're incapable of changing their ways, no matter who is leading the party.

"Every time Canadians grow tired of their latest round of ethical lapses, Liberals go looking for a new saviour. They promise it's a new day, they promise that this time it'll be different," he said.

"And each and every time, it ends the same way, with nothing but broken promises and broken hearts."

Trudeau has been under fire from both the Tories and New Democrats since a weekend interview in which he said he'd welcome Harb back to the Liberal caucus if and when the issue of his expenses is resolved.

He clarified Tuesday, amid further taunting from the Conservatives.

"I will be very clear, if he is innocent he is in; if he is guilty, he is out," Trudeau told the Commons, adding that "nobody on this side is going to cut him a $90,000 cheque to avoid the problem."

Harb has been ordered to repay more than $200,000 in improperly claimed housing allowances. He insists he's done nothing wrong and is vowing to fight the matter in court.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/the-canadian-press/130611/parties-commons-jockey-claim-ethical-high-ground-sitting-sca