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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