Sunday, March 04, 2012

Putting a price on accountability

From Friday: "MPs question true dollar value of questions asked of government."

As budget cuts loom, and Parliament's budget itself has been floated as a target, this looks like a set up. Conservative MP Brian Jean asked in December by written question to the government how much it was costing to answer parliamentarian's written questions. Those questions are a routine method of getting detailed answers and holding the government to account. Not everything can be asked in Question Period. They are a normal feature of parliamentary governments.

The government replied:
The answer he got back: a little more than $1 million to respond to about 375 written questions since the current session of Parliament began last June — including $253,000 to answer one question from a Liberal MP and $139,000 to respond to a query from the NDP.

"It's absolutely ridiculous," Jean said in an interview. "It's getting completely out of hand."
You're probably shocked there at home that opposition MPs are being cited as having put the government to the most expense. The examples cited seem ludicrously high. And there's no word on how much Jean's written question on this whole matter cost.  

How the government is attributing expense to these questions is not explained. Are they billing staffer(s) out by the hour in order to come up with these numbers? Are they engaging external resources to answer questions? Why have we never heard of this budget issue before?

Besides, taking their figures on their face, $1 million for 375 questions is actually not bad. About $2,600 per question averaged out. 375 questions since the parliamentary session began...308 members of Parliament. Not excessive on that count either.

Getting into a cost argument with them over it only justifies this way of looking at government accountability though. Are they suggesting, in peddling this exercise publicly, that we should put a dollar limit on MPs right to ask questions? You there, MP Smith, you've reached your dollar limit in yearly questions! No more questions for you!

This is not really about cost, anyway. It's about a government that likes to dilute accountability mechanisms (see in camera committee meetings). It likely means that a parliamentary budget cut could be coming soon courtesy of a Harper government near you. That would be a bad look given the increasing fire the government is under.