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Will Senate Expense Scandal Spur Reform?

Web posted on February 08, 2014

By Emily Blake

Retired senator Marc Harb and suspended senator Patrick Brazeau have recently been charged with fraud and breach of trust. This is just the latest news from the Senate expenses scandal that has plagued Canada's federal government for the past year. There were also allegations of mortgage fraud against Mr. Harb, but the RCMP has deemed that there is insufficient evidence to pursue charges.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said of the affair in the House of Commons; "We expect all parliamentarians to respect the rules and respect the law and if they do not, there will be consequences. We obviously salute and acknowledge the work of the RCMP on these particular cases."

The scandal has been a terrible embarrassment for the Conservative government as Prime Minister Harper appointed three out of four of the senators involved. There has also been speculation from the opposition over how much Mr. Harper knew about these cases including allegations of a cover-up by his office. It is now public knowledge that Nigel Wright, Harper's former chief of staff, paid $90 000 to cover the cost of senator Mike Duffy's inappropriately claimed expenses.

It was in the final months of 2012 when it came to light that senators Mike Duffy, Mac Harb, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau had claimed travel and housing expenses for which they were not eligible. This prompted the Auditor General of Canada to open an investigation into the expense claims of the entire Senate. Senators Duffy, Wallin and Harb eventually repaid the ineligible amounts that they received.

Senator Brazeau has had further legal troubles as he was arrested for domestic and sexual assault related to an incident at his home in February. As a result he was suspended from the Senate without pay. Senators Duffy and Wallin were also suspended from the Senate for their fraudulent expense claims.

New revelations about senator spending have invigorated fresh debate about Senate reform. Many Canadians have long felt that the Senate is an outdated, undemocratic, and costly institution that does little to serve the interest of citizens. Senators are unelected and unaccountable, meaning that they represent the parties that appoint them rather than their constituents.

The intended purpose of the Senate is to provide further scrutiny of policies passed by the House of Commons or `sober second thought'. Senators are expected to be highly competent individuals who make decisions based on evidence and expert judgment rather than populism. However, in reality senators are pliable to temptation and the Senate has very rarely opposed decisions that have been passed by the House of Commons.

It is clear that the Senate in its current state is no longer capable of fulfilling its mandate. However, opinion is divided over whether the Senate is an important institution that can be salvaged through reform or an unnecessary one that should be abolished. Those that advocate for Senate reform state that it makes the House of Commons more accountable and increases public education by allowing experts to discuss important issues during hearings.

Liberal party leader Justin Trudeau has already taken steps towards Liberal Senate reform. He announced that he was expelling 32 Liberal senators from his parliamentary caucus and would advocate a non-partisan process for appointing future senators. He has also vowed that if he is elected Prime Minister in the next federal election, he will appoint only independents and bring in an open, transparent, and public process for appointing and confirming future senators.

The Conservative party has long advocated for an elected Senate. In 2005 Stephen Harper stated, "An appointed Senate is a relic of the 19th century." Prime Minister Harper has asked the Supreme Court to rule on whether Parliament has the authority to impose term limits on senators, if Parliament or the provinces can consult on public recommendations for Senate appointments, and whether Parliament can abolish the Senate without the approval of all provinces. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on these decisions within the year.

The NDP party strongly advocates for abolishing the Senate, stating that the Senate is a costly body of no value as the House of Commons is the only body necessary to pass laws. They also point to New Zealand, which did away with their Upper House in the early 1950s. In promotional material the party states that the Senate sits only 90 days a year while costing taxpayers over $90 million to run. The average senator worked only 71 days last year and 31 senators missed more than a quarter of their workdays. The party currently has a petition to abolish the Senate that over 300 Canadians have signed.

Abolishing the Senate would be a drastic change to Canada's legislature, however there are many advantages to unicameral legislatures. They are capable of enacting proposed legislation more rapidly and have greater accountability as they hold the sole burden for passing policies. It also means fewer elected officials for the population to monitor, and most importantly reduces costs to the government and taxpayers.

The senator expenses scandal has made it clear that the Senate is in need of change. However, it is unclear what form these changes will take. If this institution is to be preserved, reforms must ensure that expenses are made public and there is greater transparency and citizen input in the Senate's appointment process. The Senate must function to serve the best interests of citizens and ensure that proposed laws have been examined with the utmost scrutiny.

The views of columnists in The Fountain Pen do not necessarily represent the views of the principals of the publication.