Seeking sanity on Senate shenanigans

As the ranks of auditors scurrying up and down Parliament Hill continue to swell, the Senate expense debacle is beginning to resemble a poorly written episode of a prime-time police procedural. Call it: CSI Ottawa.

First, there was the review board of the Upper Chamber’s internal economy committee. Then came the Senate Ethics Office, followed by the country’s Ethics Commissioner, followed by the RCMP.

Now, the Conservative Leader of the appointed body, Marjory LeBreton, wants Auditor General Michael Ferguson to conduct what she calls a “comprehensive” investigation of all expenses she and her compatriots have incurred and claimed over the past few months, possibly years.

Good idea, says Senate Opposition Leader James Cowan (a Liberal from Halifax), but why stop there? What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, if the gander happens to be the perpetually honking House of Commons.

Or, as he told CBC News last week, “Is this just another attempt to change the channel here? The problem isn’t the rules and policies. The problem is in the people who want to scam the system.”

Mounting evidence suggests that a sizable chunk of his fellow citizens concurs.

A CTV News Ipsos Reid poll, conducted late last month, found the personal accountability – not byzantine or antiquated regulations – is the real issue among the great unwashed of this country. That’s bad news for Sen. Mike Duffy, who used a personal gift of $90,000 from the PMO’s former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, to bay back what he owed. And it’s bad news for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, himself.

According to the survey, only 13 per cent of citizens firmly believed Mr. Harper’s contention that he did not know about the donation at the time it was made. Forty-two per cent were certain he was in the loop. Forty-four per cent weren’t sure.

The poll also found most Canadians clamoring for an independent investigation led by either the RCMP or a jurist (shades of the Gomery Inquiry, which sealed the fate of the once-mighty Liberal hegemony begin to haunt).

If such an inquiry should uncover expense gerrymandering, either deliberate or unintentional, 77 per cent thought those involved should relinquish their Senatorial offices forthwith.

As for the fate of the Red Chamber, itself, a convincing 88 per cent were, more or less, evenly divided: 45 per cent said it should be reformed; 43 per cent said it should be abolished. A marginal 13 per cent voted for the status quo.

There’s no reason to question the validity of these findings, which is why there is every reason to, as Ms. LeBreton suggests, enlist the unimpeachable authority of the Auditor-General’s office (and no others) to get to the bottom of this, and more.

Open wide all the books. Shed a torchlight into every nook and cranny of this increasingly dubious institution. Then, when done, cast a critical eye at the Commons. How are Canada’s elected representatives handling their responsibilities to taxpayers? Shouldn’t “reform” be an equal opportunity exigency in the nation’s public realm?

Before there can be true accountability, there must be clarity. When Canadians know the dimensions of the problems that afflict their most important democratic instruments, they will be equipped to demand the changes that are necessary to safeguard their trust in the political system.

“When I say a comprehensive audit of all Senate expenses, I mean just that,” Ms. LeBreton insisted on CTV’s Power Play earlier this week. “Every tax payer dollar that’s spent to the functioning of the Senate all of it. . .The public saw the Senate as a closed club, investigating itself. I came to realize that we really had to respect what the public was saying and turn it over to a body that is absolutely, without question, has a lot integrity and a lot credibility and actually assure the public that we are serious about tax payer dollars.”

It’s time the Senate’s Keystone Kops make room for CSI’s Horatio Caine.

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