Conservative senator blazes expense trail with coffee-maker revelation

OTTAWA – Sen. Doug Black says he’s already getting questions about his $179.99 office coffee-maker.

But the freshly appointed, elected Conservative senator from Alberta says public reaction to his online posting of itemized, taxpayer-funded expenses has been “overwhelmingly” positive — and “a ton of work.”

The Senate expense scandal that continues to rock the Conservative government has prompted a common understanding on Parliament Hill that the reporting of MP and senator expenses requires much greater transparency, timeliness and vigour.

Amid much partisan jockeying over reforms, it is two Conservative senators who are leading the way by example.

Bob Runciman, a former Ontario cabinet minister, announced this week he’ll join trailblazer Black in the upper chamber by posting itemized expenses online every three months.

Runciman says he’s trying to “help Doug out in encouraging others to follow the lead.”

Black has been posting his expenses — right down to individual cab fares, hospitality charges and office supply purchases — since the spring.

That coffee-maker was among the postings, and it didn’t go unnoticed.

“People have already started that, absolutely, for sure,” Black said in an interview Thursday.

“That is a risk. It’s out there. People are going to discuss it. No one can ever say we didn’t fully disclose it.”

Nonetheless, said Black, “the folks in Alberta are overwhelmingly saying, ‘thanks for doing that so we can get on to the real issues.’

“Because this is the problem: this becomes such a tremendous distraction.”

Serious expense problems among three one-time Conservative senators appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and one former Liberal have consumed Ottawa for months.

As the fall political season gears up, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is making hay by promising his MPs will unilaterally start posting their expenses in the same fashion demanded of cabinet ministers since 2005.

New Democrats are responding with their own calls — backed by a last-minute NDP motion unanimously endorsed by Parliament in June — for a committee process to examine transparency reforms, including MP expenses. The reforms wouldn’t kick in until next year.

And a government source says the Conservatives will introduce their own motion once the House resumes “to ensure that this issue is studied in the upcoming fall session.”

In an interview Thursday, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said that, in the absence of an agreed-upon system, individually posted expenses are not open to any verification.

He’s advocating a “step by step approach,” as opposed to what Mulcair called “a ping pong game where people say ‘I’m going to do this, or I’m going to do that,’ where it’s all just theoretical now anyway.”

But there’s nothing theoretical about Sen. Black’s expense postings. It’s all there in black and white.

He wasn’t trying to shame his Senate colleagues into action and isn’t demanding anyone follow suit. And Black has a quick response to the notion that negotiating a common format and time frame for expense disclosure would be the ideal way to go.

“By the time we get consensus on what wine to order for dinner, dinner is over,” said Black. “So I wanted to get ahead with it.”

He’s open to changes if others feel the format he’s chosen can be improved.

The Liberals are hoping they, too, will be seen as doing the right thing when they start posting MP expenses this fall.

Their model will be “proactive disclosures” by cabinet ministers and their staff, a system brought in by the Liberals under Paul Martin and embraced by the Harper Conservatives.

Ministerial disclosures can be fact-checked through Access to Information Act requests, which is how former minister Bev Oda’s infamous $16 glass of orange juice came to light.

And it always seems to be the little items — who can forget former Liberal David Dingwall’s $1.29 expensed pack of chewing gum? — that stick in the public craw.

MPs are not subject to the Access to Information Act, so the Liberal proposal won’t actually match the current ministerial model in transparency, nor will it turn up gum and orange juice purchases.

Liberal House leader Dominic LeBlanc says his party’s move is just a first step, and could have been more universal had the NDP not scuttled a Liberal motion on the issue back in June. The government indicated at the time it was open to adopting the Liberal measures, which included opening up the House of Commons highly secretive Board of Internal Economy.

LeBlanc says even without itemized expense reports, posting travel, accommodation, meals and incidentals the way ministers do is a useful exercise for MPs.

“What’s revealing is the comparisons,” said LeBlanc, adding the unilateral Liberal move is just a starting point for reform.

“There has to be some uniformity and some reliability. … That’s what will indicate if someone is abusing or using bad judgment.”

Cut away the rhetoric and posturing and three main parties seem to be on the same page.

Only the political jockeying — and the degree of detail that will be required of expense disclosures — appear to be at play.

The devil is always in the details.

“I can tell you on the coffee machine, there has been a bit of fixating,” Sen. Black said with a laugh.

“I can’t even tell you if it does good coffee because I don’t drink coffee. I hope it does.”

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said Dominic LeBlanc was the Liberal deputy leader

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