Canadians growing ever wearier of Senate shenanigans, poll suggests

OTTAWA – As the Senate prepares to get tough on one of its own, a new poll suggests Canadians are ready to get tougher on the Senate.

The Canadian Press/Harris Decima poll says 32 per cent of respondents feel the Senate should be abolished, an increase from 2010, when 27 per cent of those surveyed in a similar poll felt the same way.

About one-third of those who participated in the latest survey say they feel it’s time the Senate became an elected body.

The telephone survey of just over 1,000 people was taken between Feb. 7-10, just as some senators were garnering headlines for claiming dubious housing expenses — and one in particular had just been arrested on assault charges.

Today, the Senate will move a motion forcing Sen. Patrick Brazeau to take a leave of absence.

Brazeau, who has been expelled from the Conservative caucus, is currently free on bail following his arrest last Thursday on assault and sexual assault charges.

He’ll continue to collect his salary, but the Senate will also ask a committee to take the steps necessary to cut off his expense account.

That same committee is now reviewing housing allowance claims for Brazeau, Tory Sen. Mike Duffy and Liberal Sen. Mac Harb.

The tarnished reputation of the Senate isn’t lost on the people who sit there.

The Conservatives and Liberals banded together Monday in calling on the committee to interview the senators caught up in the allowance investigation.

If those who are part of the expense probe can’t back up their residency claims, the money needs to be paid back, says a joint letter from government Senate leader Marjory LeBreton and Liberal Senate leader James Cowan.

“We believe it is vital for the reputation of the Senate and those Senators who are in full compliance with our rules and regulations that this determination be made as soon as possible and that the result be made public,” the letter says.

The housing allowances given to senators who do not reside full-time in Ottawa are part of a lucrative pay and pension package that often draws criticism.

Senators must retire at the age of 75, but have the option to resign sooner — an option that preserves their pension.

Over the course of the Senate’s 146-year history, some 199 senators have resigned, many for health reasons or to take another job.

Only a handful have taken been forced into a leave of absence after a run-in with the law, like Brazeau.

Liberal Sen. Raymond Lavigne resigned in March 2011, 10 days after he was found guilty of breach of trust and fraud for claiming travel expenses for trips taken by his staff and having his staff do work on his personal farm on taxpayer time.

He was later sentenced to six months in prison and six months under house arrest, a sentence that’s currently under appeal.

Progressive Conservative Sen. Eric Berntson resigned his seat in 2000 after a fraud conviction relating his time as was a provincial legislator in Saskatchewan.

He was sentenced to a year in jail and appealed his conviction all the way to the Supreme Court.

Both men could have faced expulsion from the Senate because of their convictions, but both resigned before that step could be contemplated.

Had they been expelled, they would not have had access to their pensions, while a resignation allows them to keep getting the cheques.

At least eight other senators have resigned because they didn’t show up for two Senate sessions in row, most doing in the very early days of the institution. Breaking that rule gives the Senate the option of declaring a seat vacant.

The most recent senator to be disciplined for poor attendance was Liberal Andrew Thompson, who was suspended in 1998 after it was revealed he showed up for work only 47 times in 14 years. He claimed it was for medical reasons.

Thompson was stripped of his salary and benefits, but resigned.




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