The RCMP lays charges, but fixing the Senate is another matter

Troubled senators and the troubling existence of the Senate



There are scandals involving senators and then there is the scandal of the Senate itself. Sometimes it’s hard to keep the two straight. But today’s RCMP announcement that charges of fraud and breech of trust have been laid against suspended senator Patrick Brazeau and former senator Mac Harb falls squarely in the first category.

After all, it would be a stretch to argue that the RCMP’s finding that Brazeau and Harb both filed fraudulent housing and living expense claims somehow tells us anything definitive about the Senate as an institution. Even the Order of Canada, to choose an example sometimes held up as the gold standard, occasionally has to kick out a member.

Of course, Canadians are right to be outraged by the spectacle of criminal investigations into the spending habits of the patronage appointees who populate their Parliament’s upper chamber. But the deeper problem isn’t the behaviour of bad senators, it’s the fact that even the best of the bunch are still unelected and unaccountable.

So it’s important to keep in mind that no matter what new rules come into force to make it harder for senators to abuse their privileged positions, no matter what Auditor General Michael Ferguson uncovers in his anxiously awaited report on spending by the lot of them, no matter what future RCMP charges might come—none of this should distract from the need for fundamental reform.

And the battle lines on the possible directions for reform are clearer now than ever. Prime Minister Stephen Harper awaits direction from the Supreme Court of Canada on whether he can press ahead with term limits for Senators (some experts are betting the judges will allow it) and provincial elections that would guide future prime ministers on whom to appoint (legal scholars I’ve asked about this tend to doubt the court will let Harper implement this innovation).

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, meanwhile, is urging abolition, which would without question entail difficult talks with the provinces to push through a constitutional amendment. For his part, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau stunned official Ottawa last week by severing ties between his caucus of Liberal MPs and their Senate counterparts, while promising, should he ever become prime minister, to set up a non-partisan system for choosing senators.

I started out suggesting we not mix up senators who get into trouble and the troubling existence of the Senate. Broadly speaking, that does seem to me essential to keeping a clear head about this complicated mess. Yet there is at least one current instance in which the institutional and individual issues necessarily become blurred. It’s the case of Mike Duffy, the suspended former Tory senator, and Nigel Wright, the Prime Minister’s former chief of staff.

Like Brazeau and Harb, Duffy’s dubious claims about where he lives got him into trouble. Unlike Brazeau and Harb, though, Duffy’s case precisely highlights what’s so deeply wrong with a supposed legislative chamber that, in reality, functions as a mechanism for prime ministers to reward loyalists and provide a taxpayer-funded sinecure for biddable party operatives. Absent that unhealthy relationship, it’s hard to imagine Wright, Harper’s top aide, going to the bizarre length of cutting a personal cheque for $90,000 to try to put to rest Duffy’s expense woes.

The Mounties are evidently still looking into Duffy and Wright. “I can assure you that we continue our work on other significant files,” RCMP Assistant Commissioner Gilles Michaud said today. “RCMP investigators continue to explore multiple leads to ascertain all the facts and collect the evidence in support of these facts.”

In an interesting turn of phrase, Michaud didn’t say his investigators will be deciding to lay more charges or not at the end of their investigations. Instead, he said, “We will update Canadians when our work is completed.” That seemed the right way to put it: Canadians will want that update. But those who are paying closest attention will realize the ultimate goal here can’t be the transitory satisfaction of bringing a few individuals to justice; it must be the lasting relief of bringing an institution into line with the minimum demands of a modern democracy.

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The RCMP lays charges, but fixing the Senate is another matter

  1. Abolishing and eliminating the senate is so simple that even Ottawa might get it right.

    But hey, Ottawa loves pomp, waste, excess, bloat and patronage appointments to a part time 6 digit with ultra benefits reward packages for buddies.

    Fact is the senate hasn’t done a tangible benefit for Canadians ever. Since 1867 lots of talk, stall and ZERO progress in senate reform. So what do we get, more talk, zero action…just committees of donuts and do nothings.

    Hey, the more they tax us for this waste, the less we have to spend on each others jobs.

    • Abolishing and eliminating the senate is so simple…

      For the record, while I’m willing to wait for the Supreme Court’s definitive ruling, I’m nonetheless pretty sure that there are literally THOUSANDS of Canadian constitutional scholars who would disagree with you on that.

    • I’m gonna’ take a guess here that you’ve never passed a course in introductory Canadian political science that includes a module on the Constitution.

      • Or, apparantly, the Senate, for that matter.

    • When the Tories were in a minority position, the Libs and the NDP passed a draconian ‘climate change’ bill that the Senate blocked. I think that was a good thing, as had that bill been passed, all heck would have broken loose. We’d be economically adrift and have all sorts of regulations that would make trade with everyone, but especially the Americans, problematic. Plus, we’d all be a whole lot poorer. I believe the bill was passed primarily to embarrass the government, and had little to do with actually trying to improve things from an environmental perspective. So the Senate can be useful.

  2. So question to Macleans. Why do you only picture (twice) the conservative senator as being charged. What about the liberal that was charged too? Yes, he’s mentioned in the story, but not in either of the pictures.

    • MSM cowards

      • Fringe nutbar

    • Perhaps because there are more PC over spending senators!

      • So the article says two people charged. One a lib and one a conservative. I don’t mind them showing the conservative – if convicted, then the conservative should spend some time in jail.

        My issue is even coverage. Other sites – and I’ve checked a number of them – had both pictures. Macleans chose not only not to include both, but actually had the conservative twice.

  3. Oh course they’re going to charge something small what about the 300 million dollars missing from the Liberal Party 4:07 cost 300 million money missing all over our government hydro rise of course now gas rise Stephan Harper came right out and said its okay to help a colleague two checks the n d p talk about ATM machines the cost not the economy a quote and will you take an oath talk on cereal boxes wake up Canada

  4. Why isn’t there a picture of Harb

    • It’s notoriety pure and simple; the same reason that Justin Bieber’s antics are considered news: to sell “papers.” Brazeau was higher profile before and after his arrest. Harb resigned and slunk off the stage, while Brazeau showed up to protest his innocence. Doesn’t help that Brazeau is also facing assault charges.

      Conservatives didn’t mind seeing his picture in the paper when he was their macho champ about to knock out that effeminate Liberal, they just mind now that he is a loser.

    • Maybe dressed as a burger for you Brian?

  5. However one is not totally confident that the RCMP will be allowed to reveal all because Harp controls Paulson – only the tip of the old iceberg will actually be made public – no one too close to the mastermind will be brought forward – heavens above his hands are lilly white. As time has passed tighter control of nearly every aspect of government has been manipulated forced into compliance which only adhere to or is congruent with Harp’s policies.
    It will look like judtice is being evenly handed out to wrong doers. Perception is one valuable tool for this government and only after decades have past will the records reveal just how many & to what extent the fraud extended.