A riddle wrapped in an enigma

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If you wanted to rope well-intentioned men and women of a certain age and social standing into a club that professes no rules of conduct, apart from those it designates for itself, you might start with the Freemasons, the Rosicrucians, or the clown school just up the alley.

In a pinch, though, you can always check in on the Senate of Canada, where fully 25 per cent of its sitting and retried members have been (politely) asked to return money they allegedly spent illegitimately. A few have even been (again, politely) asked to chat with the RCMP over their various chits.

So, at least, entreats Auditor-General of Canada Michael Ferguson. (Who says a good, old New Brunswicker can’t ever get his revenge on the centre of the universe, what?)

The dear man concludes the following:

“We found a lack of independent oversight in the way Senators’ expenses are governed. As a group, Senators are responsible for governing themselves and how the Senate functions. They design their own rules, choose whether to enforce those rules, and determine what, if any, information will be publicly disclosed. The Standing Senate Committee on Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration (Internal Economy Committee) is responsible for ensuring that the Senate’s resources are managed appropriately and that its assets are protected. However, the Committee is made up of Senators who also claim expenses as individual Senators.”

What’s more, Ferguson points out, “Under the Parliament of Canada Act, the Internal Economy Committee has exclusive authority to act on, and has full discretion over, all of the Senate’s financial and administrative matters, including those of individual Senators, and its premises, services, and staff. The Committee, among other things, reviews and authorizes budgets of the Senate Administration and Senate committees, and sets policies and guidelines on items such as Senators’ travel and research expenditures.”

Still, with all due respect to Mr. Ferguson, isn’t this about the lowest-hanging fruit an A-G can swing a stick at in this absurdly rooked democracy of ours? The Senate plays in its own sandbox; alert the media.

How about the actual House of Commons? Now there’s a riddle, wrapped in an enigma, just begging for a few arch questions.

Why, for one thing, is so much parliamentary committee work so much window dressing? How, for another thing, do omnibus bills – covering everything from marijuana laws to oil sands subsidies – sail through without even an inkling of sober, second thought?

Oh, right, that’s the constitutional obligation of the Senate of Canada, many of whose members have been castigated (and, possibly, under indictment) for following rules of conduct they were explicitly told were legal and ethical.

As long as they are kept busy defending themselves against a system that seems almost Machiavellian in its facility for misdirection, there’s no need to worry about little things like fairness and justice for all.

Yet, the business of the Senate is the conscience of the nation. This is where rending issues of First Nations, violence against women, child poverty, environmental degradation, and climate change find their best, most attentive audiences.

Auditor-General Ferguson is perfectly right to recommend that the Upper Chamber submits itself to routine, external reviews; that it revises its codes of conduct both within and without its august body.

Still, if we want to unwrap an enigma with a real answer, we must stop regarding the Senate of Canada as if it were a secret society of well-intentioned men and women of a certain age and social standing who, quite literally, haven’t a clue about the perils of membership.

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