The RCMP lays charges, but fixing the Senate is another matter - Macleans.ca

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

Troubled senators and the troubling existence of the Senate

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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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