OTTAWA – The disgraced Senate will serve as a backdrop for next week’s throne speech and is bound to dominate debate during the fall sitting of Parliament.
Yet there’ll be scant mention of the scandal-plagued Senate in the speech, which is to be read Wednesday by Governor General David Johnston from a regal throne in the ornate upper chamber.
Insiders say Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has concluded it can do little to clean up the unelected Senate until the Supreme Court rules on the constitutional requirements for reforming or abolishing the chamber, which could take a year or more.
Hence, any kind of reform to the upper house has been put on hold — including purely administrative measures, which would be entirely within the government’s purview to implement, such as requiring senators to publicly disclose details of their expenses.
The throne speech’s expected silence on the subject comes amid an ongoing Senate expenses scandal that has mushroomed over the past year and shows no sign of going away any time soon.
The RCMP is investigating allegedly fraudulent living and travel expenses claimed by four senators — former Conservative caucus members Mike Duffy, Patrick Brazeau and Pamela Wallin and former Liberal Mac Harb.
Duffy is also under the Mounties’ microscope for accepting $90,000 from Harper’s former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, in order to reimburse the Senate for his dubious expense claims.
And police documents filed in court earlier this week show the probe has expanded to include allegations that Duffy gave a friend $65,000 in contracts for little or no work.
Senate finance officials, meanwhile, have been asked to review living expenses claimed by a fifth senator — Conservative Carolyn Stewart Olsen, a former senior aide to Harper and a key member of the Senate committee which called in the RCMP on the other four.
Stewart Olsen last week said Senate finance officials had reviewed her claims and “found nothing improper,” after a news report suggested she’d wrongly claimed more than $4,000 for accommodation and meals at a time when she was not involved in any Senate business.
Sen. Gerald Comeau, chair of the Senate’s internal economy committee, told The Canadian Press in an email that he’s referred the matter to the Senate administration “for review and to refer any issues to the auditor general, if necessary.”
Comeau did not respond when asked if he’s satisfied that Stewart Olsen — a member of his committee, which oversees senators’ expenses — has done nothing wrong.
Auditor General Michael Ferguson is already in the process of launching a comprehensive audit of all senators’ expenses.
Amid all this, the government has asked the Supreme Court to advise whether it can act alone to impose term limits and create a mechanism for electing senators or would need the consent of at least seven provinces.
It has also asked the court to advise whether outright abolition would require the approval of seven or all provinces.
The court is not scheduled to hear oral arguments until next month and could take a year or more to offer its opinion.
The government’s contention that its hands are tied until the court weighs in is unlikely to satisfy opposition parties, which have proposed their own ideas for making the Senate more accountable and transparent.
New Democrats have challenged both Conservatives and Liberals to ban their senators from participating in party caucus meetings and acting as party fundraisers or campaign organizers from their perch in the upper house.
Later this month, Liberal MPs and senators are to begin publicly posting their hospitality and travel expenses in greater detail than previously required and have challenged other parties to do the same.
The Senate adopted tighter rules last spring for claiming living and travel expenses, including requiring receipts and requiring senators to explain the purpose of trips when claiming travel expenses. But opposition parties have derided the measures as insufficient.