Why the Senate must be scrapped, part II - Macleans.ca

Why the Senate must be scrapped, part II

Maclean’s editorial: ‘These are grim times for our political leaders’


Protocol dictates that Canadian senators are referred to as “honourable members.” Etiquette similarly holds that mayors of Canadian cities are to be called his or her “worship.”

Despite all the formal respect accorded our political leaders, however, honour is clearly in short supply on Parliament Hill these days, given the Senate’s expense-account scandal and the weekend resignation of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s chief of staff. And recent allegations of illegal drug use dogging Rob Ford, mayor of Canada’s largest city, plus his recent record of stumbling from mistake to misadventure, make his actions seem entirely unworthy of worship. These are grim times for our political leaders.

Fortunately Canada is not entirely bereft of heroes. In addition to our current surfeit of political scandals, last week this country welcomed home a Canadian genuinely deserving of respect and amply supplied with honour. Commander Chris Hadfield’s time in charge of the International Space Station has been justly marked by an outpouring of national pride. His professional accomplishments, personal connection with school children across the country and obvious lack of pretense all serve as dramatic counterpoint to our current spate of depressing terrestrial news.

Earlier this year we argued for an end to the Canadian Senate for practical and political reasons (“Why the Senate should be abolished,” From the Editors). Established to bring regional balance and financial oversight to Canada’s federal system, the Senate no longer performs either of its intended duties. The living-allowances scandal simply adds to the embarrassment of the red chamber.

Conservative senators Mike Duffy and Patrick Brazeau plus Liberal Mac Harb have all been investigated for misusing housing allowances. After a detailed investigation by auditors Deloitte, Brazeau was found to have spent a mere 10 per cent of his time at his alleged primary residence in Maniwaki, Que., between April 2011 and September 2012. The unavoidable conclusion is that he lives full-time in the Ottawa area and thus should be ineligible for a housing allowance. The same situation applies to Harb. Both have been ordered to repay their living-expense claims.

Brazeau suffers the further ignominy of having been recently charged with sexual assault. And Conservative Sen. Pamela Wallin is undergoing a separate audit for her massive travel expenses. All four senators have left their respective caucuses, making Independent the fastest growing political party in the Senate.

It is the case of Duffy, however, that requires the most scrutiny. He alone among the senators in question chose not to co-operate with the auditors. Instead he tried to make the whole thing go away by shelling out the entire amount of his disputed housing claim: $90,172.24. Later we learned, however, that Duffy did not pay this out of his own pocket. Rather he accepted a cheque from the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright. Once this became public knowledge last week, Wright had no option but to resign; it is clearly improper for politicians to retire their debts in such a manner and Wright should have known better.

Now it has subsequently come to light that Duffy may have claimed per diem living allowances for Senate business when he was actually campaigning on behalf of the federal Conservatives during the 2011 election. A second audit could be forthcoming.

The ethical and legal issues surrounding Duffy’s situation are immense, complicated and devoid of personal honour. His actions reveal a man more interested in maximizing his take from the treasury than serving the public. And when confronted with evidence of his own misdeeds, he appears to lack even a basic sense of responsibility. He’d just as soon have someone else pay off his markers than solve the problem himself.

In fact the overwhelming sense that arises from the entire expense scandal, of which Duffy is merely the prime example, is that the Senate has become an institution more concerned with maintaining the gilded lifestyle of its members than improving Canadian democracy. Beyond the $135,200 standard Senate salary for what amounts to part-time work and all the expense claims one can get away with, according to Canadian Taxpayer Federation calculations Duffy will be eligible for a $58,000-per-year pension if he serves his entire term. Brazeau and Harb will earn annual pensions of $200,000 and $136,000 respectively if they serve until retirement.

While Prime Minister Stephen Harper this week read the riot act to Conservative MPs and senators in a rare open caucus meeting, declaring himself “very upset” at the ethical breaches, keep in mind this is a party that rode to power in 2006 largely on the promise of greater political accountability in the wake of the sponsorship scandal. More than just contrived public displays of anger will be required to fix problems that are largely of the Conservatives’ own making.

And whereas Wright had the decency to resign, it is not even clear Canadians have the ability to rid themselves of senators for ethical breaches (although senators can be stripped of salary and benefits for unacceptable behaviour). The closest the Senate came to firing one of its own members was the case of Liberal Sen. Raymond Lavigne, who was convicted of breach of trust and resigned in 2011 before the Senate could hold a debate on removing him. So Canadians may be stuck with these self-serving entitlement seekers until each reaches age 75.

As if to underline the totality of its ethical collapse, last week the Senate announced a series of changes to its administrative rules. The first proposal is to delete the so-called “honour principle” regarding senatorial behaviour. The clause to be removed currently reads: “Senators act on their personal honour and senators are presumed to have acted honourably in carrying out their administrative functions.” Eliminating any presumption of honour from the actions of its members may be the most commonsensical thing the Senate has done in a long time.

And with the pretence of honour properly dispensed with, the next logical step should be to get rid of the Senate altogether.