Now comes the reckoning — not just for the Senate, but also for Auditor-General Michael Ferguson, who spent $21 million investigating its travel and living expenses.
And what do we have to show for two years of work by Ferguson’s own team and numerous outside auditors looking into everything from flights to cab slips and coffee? A grand total of $975,600 of alleged ineligible expenses — more than half of them incurred by five senators who are now retired and no longer sitting in the Red Chamber.
(The key word here is ‘alleged’. Nothing has been proved. Our system is based on such concepts as the presumption of innocence and the rule of law. In the age of 24/7 news and social media, it’s important to remember that — even if the media don’t.)
Seven former and two sitting senators have seen their expense claims referred to the RCMP. Another 21 members of the Upper House have been named in the report, and all 30 of them have the option of making their cases directly to Ian Binnie, the former Supreme Court justice named last month as the independent arbiter in disputes between the auditor-general and senators.
Binnie was brought in by the Senate leadership — Speaker Leo Housakos, Conservative Leader Claude Carignan and Liberal Leader James Cowan — who were themselves named among the Senate 21. To avoid the appearance of benefiting from a process they created, they’re deferring on arbitration and have repaid what they’re alleged to owe.
Senators on both sides of the aisle, Conservatives and Liberals alike, will avail themselves of the opportunity to make their case to Binnie. They’re very angry that their reputations have been sullied by the AG, and furious at how their staffs have been treated by Ferguson’s hired help.
In Carignan’s case, it was $3,650 in mileage claims by a staffer. In Cowan’s it was $10,000 for travel deemed personal. In the case of Housakos, it was $6,000 for a contractor he brought in rather than hiring someone full time, as he could have done. He probably saved the Senate at least $50,000, but … never mind, Alice. Welcome to the tea party.
A fourth Senate leader, Deputy Speaker Nicole Eaton, decided to reimburse the Senate $3,600 for flights to her hometown of Toronto for meetings of voluntary boards on which she sits, including the St. Michael’s Hospital Foundation, the National Ballet of Canada, the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies and the Gardiner Museum. The AG found these trips were for “personal interests.” But as the Canadian Press reported: “Eaton points out that the ethics and conflict of interest code for senators specifically declares that senators are expected to continue their activities in their communities and regions while serving the public.” No kidding.
Senators on both sides of the aisle, Conservatives and Liberals alike, will avail themselves of the opportunity to make their case to Binnie. They’re very angry that their reputations have been sullied by the AG, and furious at how their staffs have been treated by Ferguson’s hired help — in some cases kids recently out of accounting school who wouldn’t know Parliament Hill from third base.
For example, Manitoba Senator Don Plett was on holiday in Calgary in 2011 when he received a call from then-Public Safety Minister Vic Toews asking him to fly to Ottawa to meet the commissioner of Correctional Services. He flew direct from Calgary; the AG maintains he should have paid his own way home to Winnipeg first and caught a flight back from there, and says he owes a $700 differential in airfare. I’m not making this up.
Plett has repaid about $3,000 in other expenses he and his staff flagged for the auditors, but will take the $700 in disputed airfare to Binnie. “I feel very strongly,” he said, “that travel at the request of a minister of the crown is Senate business.” He’s got a point.
It isn’t just senators’ reputations that are on the line — it’s Ferguson’s as well.
Manitoba Senator Janis Johnson is looking at $22,000 in contested travel claims, some of it involving her role as founder of the non-profit Gimli Film Festival, which is a cultural and tourism magnet in her community. Last summer, she said, 12,000 people attended the week-long festival in July on the shores of Lake Winnipeg. It has also, she said, “created five full-time jobs in the community.”
Among other things, during uncounted hours of grillings by outside auditors, she was once asked why she took a cab back to her hotel at night in Halifax from a hearing she was chairing on Canada-U.S. relations. She was also asked about postage for greeting cards sent to colleagues in the U.S. Senate. While the auditors were nickel-and-diming her, their ownmetres were ticking.
It isn’t just senators’ reputations that are on the line — it’s Ferguson’s as well. Leave aside for a moment the nine senators referred to the RCMP; should Binnie dismiss his conclusions about many or most of the Senate 21, Ferguson’s reputation for competence — not to mention that of his consultants — would be in trouble. He’d need to consider his own future at that point, if only for the integrity and standing of the AG’s office.
‘Above All, Do No More Harm’
As for the Senate, there’s no question that, in reputational and collective terms, this has been a terrible time for the Red Chamber.
What is to be done for it?
No one is going to say, ‘Senate, heal thyself’. We’re way beyond that now; the public sees the Senate as fundamentally dysfunctional. But to borrow a phrase from the medical profession, it isn’t too late to say, ‘Above all, do no more harm.’
This applies not only to the Senate, but to leaders in the Commons. In this regard, the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision on the Senate reference is required reading.
Abolishing the Senate requires the unanimous consent of Ottawa and the provinces.
In its landmark decision, the court found that the Senate “is one of Canada’s foundational political institutions.” The court was clearly guided by “the intent of the framers.” As they wrote: “The contrast between election for members of the House of Commons and executive appointment is not an accident of history. The framers of the Constitution Act 1867 deliberately chose executive appointment of Senators in order to play the specific role of a complementary body of ‘sober second thought’.”
Reforming the executive appointment process requires a constitutional amendment under the 7/50 general amending of Parliament and seven provinces representing 50 per cent of the population. Abolishing the Senate requires the unanimous consent of Ottawa and the provinces.
Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair says he would begin consulting the premiers with a view to abolishing the Senate soon after forming a government. Sure, Tom … just ask the premier of Prince Edward Island to give up his province’s four seats in the Senate. Just ask the premiers of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to give up their 10 seats.
Whatever way forward we take on the Senate, we ought to be guided by two rules — decency and common sense.
Ask the premier of Quebec to give up his province’s 24 Senate seats. (Actually, Philippe Couillard is open to a constitutional conversation, provided it includes a Quebec Round. As Stephen Harper pointed out from the G7 meeting, a constitutional round is a complete non-starter.)
But neither can the Senate be abolished by attrition. There are now 20 vacancies in the 105-seat Senate, and there’s going to be a court case on whether the PM should be obliged to fill vacancies within a reasonable period. Reading the Supreme Court’s 2014 Senate reference case, it’s pretty clear the government would lose in the high court. Again.
Justin Trudeau has suggested Senate nominations by an eminent persons panel — and as long as they were confirmed by executive appointment, this would fit perfectly within constitutional bounds. Former prime minister Brian Mulroney has suggested appointments by the PM from ranked lists furnished by the provinces, as was the case under the Meech Lake Accord.
Whatever way forward we take on the Senate, we ought to be guided by two rules — decency and common sense — both of which appear to have gone missing.
L. Ian MacDonald is editor of Policy, the bi-monthly magazine of Canadian politics and public policy. He is the author of five books. He served as chief speechwriter to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney from 1985-88, and later as head of the public affairs division of the Canadian Embassy in Washington from 1992-94. The views, opinions and positions expressed by all iPolitics columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of iPolitics.
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