Canadian Senate on the table for reform, after misconduct

When Parliament resumes in October, there will be tough questions about the fate of the Canadian Senate. Public figures including federal Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair are calling for the abolishment or reformation of the embattled upper chamber.

A chain of controversies began in December 2012 with the discovery of irregular housing allowances of Conservative Senators Patrick Brazeau and Mike Duffy. Senators are required by law to reside in the province they represent, but are allowed to charge living and travel expenses to government accounts when they are needed in Ottawa. An independent auditor concluded that Brazeau and Duffy, senators of Quebec and P.E.I. respectively, resided in Ottawa while still claiming expenses as if they lived in their provinces.

The Senate ordered an audit to investigate these irregularities and released the findings May 9, 2013. The audit concluded that although the rules had been unclear, the senators were in the wrong. The Senate ordered Brazeau and another senator, Mac Harb, to pay back tens of thousands of dollars in erroneous claims. Duffy was also named, but had already repaid  his owings, roughly $90,000, in March 2013.

This was not an end of the Senate’s woes, however. Shortly after, on May 15, it came to light that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright, had gifted Duffy—who had been appointed by Harper himself— $90,000 back in March so Duffy could make a timely repayment of what he owed.

Under withering fire from the media and the Opposition, Duffy left the Conservative party to sit as an independent and Wright resigned from his position as Harper’s chief of staff. The prime minister says he had no idea that Wright had cut Duffy a cheque.

The RCMP are now looking at Duffy and Wright in a separate investigation. Allegedly, Duffy charged the government for travel expenses incurred while campaigning for the Conservatives in 2011.

Another senator, Pamela Wallin, also appointed by the prime minister, is under investigation for her own expense malfeasance. On Aug. 21, the Senate ordered she pay back the roughly $139 000 she had charged while making unnecessary airline stopovers to visit her property in Toronto.

In light of these Senate events, the government is now conducting a full audit of all the members’ finances.

So what’s next for the harried Senate? Mulcair, leader of the NDP, hopes there is no next step—he is pushing for the abolition of the Senate. On August 30, Mulcair kicked off a campaign titled “Roll Up The Red Carpet,” a cross-country push to declare his desire to see the government body, which the campaign calls “unaccountable, unelected and under investigation,” scrapped.

UVic political science professor Matt James doesn’t think abolition is possible. He says even reform faces significant “hurdles.” Since its inception, the Senate has only been significantly altered twice. The current government alone has attempted to pass such legislation eight times.

Stephen Harper’s most recent Senate reform bill (C-7) will be debated in the Supreme Court this fall. The bill would significantly reduce the length of Senators’ terms and give the provinces more say in who the prime minister appoints to represent them in the Senate. The coming debate will centre on whether the federal government can pass this legislation without amending the Constitution. Such an amendment would require the approval of the provinces, a notoriously tricky proposition when it comes to something as divisive as Senate reform.

B.C. has taken the official position that significant Senate changes should be made in consultation with British Columbians and subject to the Constitution. According to a B.C. Ministry of Justice press release, this would take “agreement from at least seven of the provinces representing at least 50 per cent of Canada’s  population.” The release also says that in B.C. a referendum is required before the Legislative Assembly can consider constitutional amendments needing provincial approval.

The Supreme Court will hear the case in November 2013, but a ruling isn’t expected until next year.

James says that Harper is an adept politician who has dodged worse scandals. Harper’s recent proroguing of Parliament will delay the House of Commons convening until sometime in October, which has been construed by the Opposition as a way to avoid uncomfortable questions.

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