Tag Archives: Pamela Wallin

Still life in the old chamber

August bodies in abeyance

August bodies in abeyance

The Senate, many Canadians seem to believe, is entitled, corrupt and well past its best before date. And given the roiling expense scandals now underway, who can really blame them?

“One could say it’s a great soap opera,” Marilyn Trenholm Counsell, a former senator, herself, told CBC Radio’s New Brunswick rolling home show last week. “Of course, it isn’t a soap opera. It’s real and it’s hurtful.”

She’s right, of course.

Deriding the Upper Chamber has become everyone’s favorite parlor game. “On a daily basis evidence piles up that reveals our upper house to be neither useful nor necessary. An incessant string of scandals and disgraceful behaviour by senators has turned the red chamber into a national embarrassment,” Macleans magazine opined earlier this year. “Its functionality has been eroded to nothing with little prospect for change, despite claims from the Harper government to champion Senate reform.”

To others, however, this conclusion, while not entirely unjustified, seems conveniently rash.

Most of the Senate’s business is in committee. It’s here where, in the words of Senator Muriel McQueen Fergusson, the chamber’s “heart and soul” rests. According to an information circular posted to the CBC’s website a couple of years ago, “committees discuss important social, economic and political issues and this forum is where senators hear from interested citizens.”

Indeed, “Most bills, prior to third reading, are referred to committees where they are examined closely. In the Senate committee stage, public hearings are held, the bills are studied clauses by clause, and a report on the bill is prepared and presented to the Senate. Committees, which function as study groups, include 12 to 15 senators.”

Ms. Trenholm Counsell, who also served for a time as New Brunswick’s Lieutenant-Governor, elaborated on this to good effect in her recent radio interview.

“I worked as hard in the Senate as I did anywhere else. Wonderful work is done; the committee work,” she said. “I worked on. . .studies. I worked on a study on early childhood development. I burned the midnight oil quite often.”

In fact, she observed, “It is so interesting historically. Some bills have had upward of 100 amendments. The history and the tradition has been that those amendments have been accepted. . .I think we need the studies that come out of the Senate.

“In the House of Commons, they may bring in two or three people at the committee stage to speak to a bill. In some of the great bills that have come to the Senate, we might have had as many as 100 witnesses right across this country come in and speak to the substance of the bill. From there we made amendments which, by and large, were accepted. So, the legislation was better, much better. And that is because you had the great people. . .I am worried that this greatness is going out of the thing.”

She’s not aone.

Expense scandals, aside, the Senate’s growing partisanship, its evolution into a rubber stamp for the sitting government is contributing to its compromised stature. If its historical utility was related to its function as a check on the excesses of the Commons, to its role as what John A. Macdonald famously termed a chamber of “sober second thought”, the politics of modern times might easily render these expectations both quaint and antiquated.

Still, some signs are encouraging. As the Globe and Mail reported last week, “Senators pressed the government about why a federal spy agency has been probing telecommunications in Brazil, seeking clear answers about the activities of Communications Security Establishment Canada. Asking whether the spy agency has sufficient oversight, both Liberals and Conservatives in the Red Chamber demanded more information on Thursday about CSEC and its interest in Brazil’s Ministry of Mines and Energy.”

Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, for one, appeared untroubled by his party affiliations when he pointedly commented, “Canada is the only country not to have any legislative oversight of any kind for its national-security services.”

All of which is to ask: Is there yet life in the Upper Chamber?

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How a Canadian senator goes down swinging

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They will not go gently into that soft night, after all. They will scream and blame and, if they have anything to say about it, they will destroy those who set out to destroy them.

That’s what happens when former broadcast journalists turned semi-disgraced Canadian senators have nothing left to lose.

Mike Duffy had his day in the spotlight earlier this week when he declared before an assembly of his Upper Chamber colleagues in Ottawa:

“Like you, I took an solemn oath to put the interests of Canadians ahead of all else. However, the sad truth is I allowed myself to be intimidated into doing what I knew in my heart was wrong, out of a fear of losing my job and out a misguided sense of loyalty. . .Let me repeat, Deloitte investigated, their audit of my expenses related to my home in P.E.I., did not find wrongdoing. They said I had not broken the Senate’s rules.”

As for the vote to suspend him, he added, “This motion is something one might expect to see in Iraq or Iran, or in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, but not in democratic Canada. It is not, I repeat, fundamental justice.”

He reserved his choicest criticism for the Prime Minister’s Office: “Today, you have an opportunity to stand strong and use your power to restrain the unaccountable power of the PMO. That’s what this Senate’s about, sober second thought, not taking dictation from kids in short pants down the hall.”

Then it came Pamela Wallin’s turn.

“The motion to suspend me is baseless and premature, and likely beyond the scope of this chamber,” she told senators. “By throwing a member of this Senate under the bus, finding her guilty without a fair hearing such as any other Canadian could expect – a right guaranteed us by the Charter – to proceed without the evidence having been adduced and considered on which the charge in the motion is based – is a fundamental affront to Canadian democracy – and makes a mockery of this chamber.”

Then out came the fangs.

“One of the senators who sits in judgment of all of us, who had her sights trained on me from the beginning, Senator Stewart-Olsen, has recently had questions raised about her own probity in relation to her residential expense claims,” she crowed. “But of course there will be no Deloitte audit in her case. Apparently, the Committee on Internal Economy, of which she has long been a member, intends to consider her matter in private. This is a double standard – she gets kid glove treatment and I’m unfairly singled out for a retroactive audit.”

At the heart of all of this, Wallin declared, was simple, ugly, professional jealousy.

“She (Sen. Stewart-Olsen) and Marjory LeBreton (former Conservative Senate leader) could not abide the fact that I was outspoken in caucus, or critical of their leadership – or that my level of activity brought me into the public eye and once garnered the praise of the prime minister. They resented that – they resented me being an activist senator. In this chamber, Senator Marjory LeBreton derided me, accusing me of having an inflated view of my role.”

This is how a three-ring circus becomes a bout of bare knuckle mixed martial arts – the finest display of senatorial cage fighting since the Red Chamber last updated its rules of residency some time in the 19th century.

As for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the message is simple: Bad behaviour by elected or appointed representatives will not be tolerated. Period. End of discussion. So sayest Dad: “The victims here are the CanadIan people who expect from all parliamentarians that they will treat pubic money with the appropriate respect and integrity it deserves.”

It remains to be seen, of course, how much more bad behaviour will be  uncovered  – or covered up, as the case may be – in the Senate and the PMO.

It’s all very well to rage against the dying of the light, until you realize the lights on Parliament Hill went out a long time ago.

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The Canadian Senate sends in its clowns

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The federal Conservative government’s point man in the Senate now hopes to preserve the “dignity and integrity” of the Red Chamber by forcing three of its members, who have not yet been charged with the crime of expense-fiddling, to take a long, unpaid hike off a short pier.

Senators Pamela Wallin, Mike Duffy and Patrick Brazeau are, apparently, an affront to this august body, where near-lifetime tenures proceed at the pleasure of the sitting prime minister and regional “representation” is a function of Victorian-era definitions of residency.

Still, says Tory Senate leader Claude Carignan, off with their heads.

Hear, hear, agrees his Liberal counterpart James Cowan: Suspend the rascals and be quick about it.

“It’s not a Liberal, a Conservative or an Independent (thing),” Sen. Carignan told The Toronto Star last week. Referring to Sen. Duffy, he said, “(Here’s) a senator that . . . didn’t respect the dignity and the rules of the senate. . .It’s not a question of money. It’s a question of gross misconduct. . .It’s a very severe sanction but I think it’s appropriate.”

Added Sen. Cowan: “I certainly have no sympathy for those three senators who we found deliberately breached what were clear rules and were ordered to pay significant amounts of money back. We need to take disciplinary action. These were not simple mistakes, bookkeeping errors. There was, the Senate found, a deliberate attempt to abuse the rules.”

The accused and their legal eagles say exactly the opposite is true.

According to The Canadian Press this week, Sen. Duffy’s lawyer, Donald Bayne, “spent nearly an hour (on Monday) alleging how Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s staff and key Conservative senators developed a scheme to have Duffy take the fall for wrongdoing that even they agreed he had not committed.”

What’s more, the news wire reported, “Five allegations emerged from Monday’s event.” Among these: “Government Senate leader Marjory LeBreton allegedly told Duffy in a letter that residency is not clearly defined in the Senate’s rules. . .Nigel Wright, the prime minister’s former chief of staff, allegedly told Duffy in an email last December that he had not broken any rules in relation to his housing expenses.”

Declared Bayne: “The whole political decision-making about this has been a fiasco. . .From the get-go, rather than letting the truth out, that there are flaws in the Senate system and rules, it’s the old story. The cover-up is always more damaging than the original issue.”

It’s hard to know who to watch, let alone whom to find credible, in this three-ring circus. One assumes that the serious deliberations the Senate is supposed to undertake as a large part of its official function are underway somewhere behind the curtain. But, it’s safe to say that “sober second-thinking” are not words most Canadians would associate with the Upper Chamber these days.

All of which leaves reform-minded parliamentarians in something of a quandary: How do they reconstitute the Senate and restore its reputation without appearing to admit that Senators Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau are, in fact, victims, rather than opportunists. The rush to judge the individuals involved now seems calculated more to uphold the principle of honesty in public office untethered from the institutional context – a context that may well be so fundamentally flawed that technical breeches of the rules are, under even normal circumstances, almost inevitable.

Summary suspensions, at this point, are patently unjust. They are, naturally, politically expedient courses of action. But they won’t address what is, almost certainly, a much bigger problem in the Senate. It’s a problem to which Conservative Senator Hugh Segal alluded in an interview with CBC Nnews last week.

“The notion that we would move to a sentencing process, which this motion is. . .is just completely unfair and a violation of every principle of fairness,” he said. “Some folks think the best way to deal with these problems is to throw everybody under the bus. Well guess what? You’re going to run out of buses and you’re going to run out of people.”

Just so.

And so goes with it dignity and integrity.

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We’d better step up our scandalous game

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There is nothing as disappointing, nothing that deflates the national self-worth as thoroughly, as a boring political scandal. We Canadians are lamentably proficient at manufacturing only the dreariest of all possible controversies.

Senator Pamela Wallin may or may not have bilked taxpayers tens-of-thousands-of-dollars either deliberately or unwittingly. Her colleague, Mike Duffy, improperly accepted a gift of $90,000 to pay off his debt to the Upper Chamber. Really? Is that all we got? Paper trails and chump change?

I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to do a lot better than that if we intend to enter the big leagues of global misconduct. Where are the illicit affairs, the love children, the hush money, the blackmail? Where are the tearful confessions, the bitter reproaches, the orchestrated displays of rehabilitation, the 24/7 news coverage?

More to the point, where is Anthony Weiner when we need him?

Mr. Weiner (pronounced “wee-ner”), you may recall, is the former multi-term U.S. congressman from New York’s ninth district who, in 2011, sent a picture of his underwear-clad private parts to one of his female Twitter followers. Initially, of course, he denied having done the misdeed. Then, at a press conference, he admitted that he had, in fact, “exchanged messages and photos of an explicit nature with about six women over the last three years,” adding: “To be clear, the picture was of me, and I sent it. I’m deeply sorry for the pain this has caused my wife, and our family, my constituents, my friends, my supporters and my staff. . .I lied because I was ashamed at what I had done, and I didn’t want to get caught.”

More recently, the apparently sexting-addicted politico, who is running for mayor of New York City, allows that he has continued his puerile ways even though they cost him his seat in Congress. In one of his tweets, under the nom de plum “Carlos Danger”, he reportedly describes himself as “an argumentative, perpetually horny middle-aged man”. Astonishingly, he refuses to drop out of the race.

All of which is enough to inspire The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg to marvel, in one recent issue of the magazine, “The saga of the transgressions of Anthony D. Weiner. . .is remarkable for many reasons. Chief among them is what the protagonist of the tale did not, as far as we know, do. He did not commit adultery. He did not break up a marriage, his own or anyone else’s. He did not employ the services of a prostitute. He did not stalk. He did not misuse public funds. . .He and his partners in sin have never been in the same room at the same time.”

In fact, he did nothing whatsoever except to reveal himself as a man who, in Mr. Hertzberg’s estimation, “is too unself-aware, too immature, and too narcissistic to be mayor.” Perhaps, but when it comes to processing scandals to remain perpetually in the public eye, this narcissist is a genius. Even the Brits could learn a thing or two from him.

Across the pond, reports that Prime Minister David Cameron’s “flagship law to end Britain’s lobbying scandals is a ‘useless dog’s breakfast’ and the Government should urgently postpone its current fast-tracked progress through Westminster, according to the head of the Commons committee that has scrutinised the reform. Graham Allen, who leads the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee, has taken the unusual step of recalling his committee ahead of MPs’ return to Parliament next month, to hold special evidence sessions involving leading figures from the UK lobbying industry.”

As Mr. Allen told the news source in an exclusive, “The new lobbying law is rushed and ridiculous. Instead of addressing the Prime Minister’s promise to ‘shine the light of transparency’ on lobbying, this flawed legislation will mean we’ll all be back in a year facing another scandal. It is a dog’s breakfast.”

Important? Sure. Boring? Absolutely.

For our part, we Canadians deserve far better from our public officials. It’s been some time since we’ve been truly outraged. This is late summer, after all. The weather shouldn’t be the only thing that stays hot and steamy.

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The lazy, crazy days of summer on the Hill

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Stephen Harper doesn’t strike me as a beach-combing, swimsuit-wearing type of guy. Nor do I imagine him to be much of a cracker-barreller, hanging around the local five-and-dime, good-naturedly swapping stories with the geriatric set. Someone told me he once wore a suit to a barbecue.

In fact, I have no idea how the esteemed prime minister prefers to spend his down time (does he have down time?), but the days of his annual furlough from Crazytown are rapidly running out. He’d better smoke ‘em while he’s got ‘em, for the fall legislative session promises to be. . .well, let’s just say, trying.

Goodbye Andrew MacDougall. We hardly knew ye. Then again, we hardly knew any of your predecessors, either. Seven directors of communications for the Prime Minister’s Office in seven years, in one door and out the other. That’s got to be some kind of record. For his part, Mr. MacDougall thanked his boss, thanked the media “for and interesting experience,” and praised his colleagues and staff for making him “look good”, especially when they weren’t screwing up.

Funny stuff. His acknowledged sense of whimsy will be sorely missed in Ottawa as he assumes his new responsibilities at a “strategic communications” firm in London, U.K., rescuing some other guy’s butt from the pyre of public opinion.

Really, though, does Fat City proffer a more thankless job than the one Mr. MacDougall leaves behind?

Just a moment; I believe it does.

The whereabouts of one Pamela Wallin are much on people’s minds these days. And by “whereabouts,” I mean her mode of conveyance across this vast land of ours. Is it a commercial flight from the nation’s Capitol to Toronto to Saskatchewan? Or is it the bus under which her Senate colleagues have thrown her?

Having already repaid $38,000 in improperly claimed travel expenses, Ms. Wallin must now pony up an additional $83,000. She says she’ll do it. But she’s not happy about it. Speaking to reporters in Ottawa this week, the embattled Senator had this to say about the independent audit of her spending by Deloitte:

“It is my view that this report is the result of a fundamentally flawed and unfair process. When appointed to the Senate in 2009, I was determined to be an activist Senator, one who saw it as her job to advance causes that are important to Canadians. When invited to appear publicly and speak on subjects including the role of women in public life, Canada’s mission in Afghanistan, and support for our troops, I saw it as my duty to accept whenever able to do so. Travel to these public speeches and appearances was, and is, in my continuing view, a legitimate Senate expense.

“However, in the Deloitte report, a number of expenses going back to 2009 that were submitted – and approved – by Senate Finance over a four year period have now been disallowed. Deloitte has wrongly, in my view and in the opinion of my lawyers, applied the 2012 changes made to the Senators’ Travel Policy retroactively. The result is that travel expenses, which were approved and paid by Senate Finance in 2009, 2010 and 2011 have, in a number of cases, been disallowed.”

Still, she added, “While I have serious concerns about the fairness of this process, I do not want to further burden the people of Saskatchewan, the Canadian public, or my Senate colleagues any more with this matter. . .I will pay back the full amount ordered by the Committee, including interest, once the final figure is given to me, and I will do so from my own resources.”

None of which prevents her confreres in the Red Chamber from clucking their pious disapprovals, even as some might frantically check their own records for evidence of unintended malfeasance. All of which raises a fresh batch of questions about an institution that can’t, for the ossified life of it, figure out how to regulate itself.

Over at the PMO, which Mr. Harper must re-embrace all too soon, the message remains crystal clear. As Mr. MacDougall told The Globe and Mail this week, “Our government will not tolerate the waste and abuse of taxpayer money. We expect that any inappropriate expenses will be repaid.”

It was, perhaps, his swan song, the title of which reads: “I’m outta’ here, and not a moment too soon.”

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The Red-faced Chamber needs reform

They’ve been falling like pins on a bowling lane – not one after another, but all at once, concussed by the sheer force of the public opprobrium against them. First Messrs. Brazeau and Harb, then Mr. Duffy and, finally, Ms. Wallin. May is the month of their reckoning and, at some basic level, of the Canadian Senate itself.

Expense claims make superb political scandals. Who doesn’t believe that public officials are always just one chit away from defrauding the noble, long-suffering taxpayer? Who doesn’t suspect that for every misdeed uncovered in the nation’s chambers of power, dozens more go undetected?

The burden of reality, though, is complexity. Nothing in Ottawa is ever as it seems, and while the tangled webs Senators Patrick Brazeau, Mac Harb, Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin have spun for themselves seem identical, they are not.

Last week, Mr. Brazeau told CBC Radio’s “The House” that he received prior, written approval from the Senate to rack up nearly $50,000 in living costs, a sum which that august body demands he return. His colleague, Mr. Harb, is on the hook for $100,000, a claim he has hired a lawyer to defend.

Meanwhile, Ms. Wallin has quit the Conservative caucus and has no intention of returning until an external reviewer finishes examining $320,000 in travel expenses she has incurred since 2010. In a statement, she said, “Given that (the audit process) continues, I have decided to recuse myself. . .and I will have no further comment” until, presumably, she is either cleared or found culpably responsible for the tab.

And then there is Mr. Duffy – poor, dear Mr. Duffy. He is paying a heavy premium in the court of public opinion for the $90,000 gift he received from the prime minister’s (now former) chief of staff to cover his expense debt to the Senate. The move has both baffled and outraged Canadians, who complain, with some justification, that a member of the Upper Chamber ought to pay his own bills, just like anybody else.

In fact, it’s the variety of these alleged lapses in judgement (as much as their concurrence) that speak most convincingly to the real problem an increasing number of Canadians perceive about the Senate: its institutional ossification.

Here is a body so unfamiliar with the concepts of accountability and transparency that it has no way to influence the comportment of its members without erecting what amounts to a police dragnet.

This observation lets no individual off the hook; nor should it. Mr. Duffy’s behavior  (or what we know of it) seems particularly egregious. Amid the thunder and lightening of popular outrage, no one has yet seen fit to point out that ethical wounds cannot always be healed by legal triage. Notwithstanding the generosity of a friend lately in a high place, the $90,000 Mr. Duffy improperly billed the Senate is still his burden to bear until he, alone, assumes responsibility for the debt. Otherwise, he skates free to spend his unencumbered net worth on whatever he likes. In whose conception of plain dealing is this even remotely fair?

Still, the larger issue is the Senate, itself – a 19th century institution purportedly doing 21st century work. Its members serve at the pleasure of those who appointed them, not always in the interests of the electorate or even the regions they are, by convention, supposed to represent. Its rules of residency are baroque. Its internal review procedures are inconsistent and oftentimes incomprehensible.

It is possible to remove a senator, but as a CTV report noted in February, it isn’t easy. Quoting from the Constitution Act, the news source identified five reasons for turfing a member, including: “If he is adjudged Bankrupt or Insolvent, or applies for the Benefit of any Law relating to Insolvent Debtors, or becomes a public Defaulter.”

Bankruptcy? Really?

All of which only guarantees that the inarguably good work the Senate performs (despite itself) remains shackled both to its fossilized past and current scandals.

There can be only one, sensible reckoning for Canada’s Upper Chamber: reform.

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