OTTAWA – When Canada’s auditor general last took a close look at the Senate in 2012, he came away with a largely positive view.
Sure, there was room for improvement: some expense claims were too vague, and a few travel claims couldn’t be explained. But the upper chamber generally seemed to be running smoothly. The report made few waves.
What a difference a year makes.
Thanks to a relentless barrage of expense scandals, Canadians have soured on the Senate. Editorial pages are clogged with angry letters to the editor. Talk radio phone lines light up in anger. Polls show a steady growth in public appetite for reform. A Canadian Press-Harris Decima survey this spring suggested Canadians were warming to the idea of amending the Constitution to reform the Senate.
There was even a gigantic, grinning Mike Duffy balloon, complete with cash-stuffed briefcase, that materialized behind Parliament Hill, courtesy of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation — an inflatable testament to taxpayer outrage.
Duffy, fellow former Conservatives Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau and former Liberal Mac Harb are all in hot water over questionable expense claims. The Mounties have been called in to investigate.
As a result, auditor general Michael Ferguson’s forthcoming examination has the potential to deal a crippling blow to the institution — a risk some senators say they’re willing to take if the Senate is to have any chance of surviving.
“I don’t think we can get through the present difficulties without the public being assured that the auditor general did the same intense audit that he or she would have done in any government department,” Conservative Sen. Hugh Segal said Friday.
Ferguson’s office will confer with a three-person Senate audit committee chaired by Conservative Sen. Elizabeth Marshall, herself a former auditor general in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Marshall said she, Conservative Sen. Larry Smith and Liberal Sen. George Furey expect to meet regularly with representatives from the auditor general’s office in the coming months.
“It would cover areas, for example, that he would be pursuing or things that he’s identified. Things of that nature,” she said.
“It would keep the audit committee current as to how the audit was progressing…. They can raise whatever issues they have, and we can raise whatever issues have an ask questions. Sort of like a progress meeting.”
The auditor general’s wheels were set in motion yet again in June when Conservative and Liberal senators agreed to invite Ferguson to scrutinize the way they spend taxpayer dollars.
At the time, Ferguson told a Senate committee that the audit could take between six and 18 months. He also raised the possibility of releasing interim reports along the way so Canadians don’t have to wait up to a year and a half for his findings.
Ferguson’s office declined an interview request Friday, but he has indicated the audit would be a “performance audit,” formerly known as a value-for-money audit.
Such audits explore if programs are being run “with due regard for economy, efficiency and environmental impact,” and if the government has the mechanisms in place to ensure they are effective, the auditor general’s website says.
Ferguson also released a statement Friday saying his office is still in the planning process.
“As our office has not yet finished planning the audit, some decisions remain to be finalized, but certainly, our intention is to look at all Senators’ expenses,” the statement said.
“The audit team has been identified, and we expect the work will move ahead shortly.”
Still, it remains unclear how Ferguson’s current probe will differ from the 2012 version, which generally gave the Senate a clean bill of health, albeit with some room for improvement.
Last year’s report randomly sampled some senators’ expenses and found only a few trouble spots.
The auditor general found no stated purpose for senators’ travel between Ottawa and their homes in four instances of the 36 travel and 24 living expenses he examined.
Ferguson’s team also found limited information about some claims. One travel claim for a trip to Washington only indicated it was for “parliamentary business” without offering any more details.
But the auditor general found 93.8 per cent of the expenses reviewed were “for intended purposes: related to parliamentary function and in accordance with the rules.”
The 2012 audit followed an internal Senate report from December 2010 that also highlighted shortcomings, including the need for better record-keeping and the need for updated policies and better communication and understanding of those policies.
The December 2010 audit also contained highlights of another audit, this time done by the firm Ernst and Young in 2009, that looked at senators’ office expenses. The Ernst and Young raised many of the same issues as subsequent audits.
So what makes senators so sure this latest audit will make any difference?
“You’re always in a state of continual improvement,” Marshall said.
“If somebody’s recommending that you improve something, you can make improvements and when they come back, you’ll be recommending further improvements.
“The way I put it is, you’ll never reach utopia, but you have to keep working towards it.”
The federal Conservatives, meanwhile, appear to have their sights set on fundamentally changing or altogether scrapping the Senate.
Employment Minister Jason Kenney suggested Friday that outright abolition is unlikely.
“Whether people agree with it or not, the Fathers of Confederation decided that Canada, like every other democratic federation, would have an upper house that in principle could represent the interests of the regions,” Kenney said during an event in Calgary.
“That is our constitutional structure, but we want to ensure that it is a modern and accountable Senate. That’s why we want a democratic Senate with term limits and accountability to the public.”
With files from Bill Graveland in Calgary