The Senate scandals of 2013 exposed several weaknesses in the rules governing the Senate, the chamber’s administration and the conduct of senators. Expense, travel and hiring policies were shown to be weak, vague, and poorly administered and enforced; the right of some individuals to hold their seats was questioned; and the ability of the institution to govern itself was fundamentally tested. To the public, it seemed as though senators were conducting their business in the smoke-filled backrooms of the 1950s and 60s, instead of the high standard of accountability expected after the sponsorship scandal and the Federal Accountability Act.
While a chapter in the saga has concluded with the verdict in the Duffy trial, senators should not be comforted by that closure and assume the impact from the scandals is behind them. Several cases are outstanding, and the outcome of the Duffy trial itself has left a sour taste in the mouths of many Canadians. The reputation of the institution — not great to begin with — took a serious hit. It will be a long, hard road for senators to regain any trust. Putting their heads down and providing sound policy advice to governments will not be enough. The only hope senators have to regain at least some respect will be to make a meaningful commitment to transparency and to demonstrate to Canadians that they can be trusted to fulfill their duties in an ethical manner that respects the public purse.
The Senate should be commended for taking some action to clean up its act. None of the spending scandals would have been brought to light if it had not been for the proactive disclosure of expenses that began in 2010. In 2012, following the auditor general’s report, the Clerk of the Senate began the professionalization of the administration. In May 2013, the Senate took a number of important steps to bring its expense reimbursement policies in line with the basic expectations in the private sector. At the same time, it removed from its administrative rules the “honour system,” which obliged the administration to assume Senators were acting appropriately based on their personal word alone.
Important measures have also been taken to amend the Conflict of Interest Code for Senators, including first steps to incorporate the concept of ethics, rather than simply ensuring Senators’ finances are conducted in a manner that avoids conflict with their official duties.
Lastly, the Senate should be congratulated for calling in the auditor general in 2013 to conduct a full audit of Senators’ offices, something that should have been done by the previous auditor general in 2012. This action, it should be noted, was only taken on the initiation and insistence of Marjory LeBreton, then leader of the government in the Senate.
Despite these actions, the job is only partly complete. Much more must be done to address the administration of expenses. A number of other issues raised by the scandals have yet to be addressed.
A number of other issues raised by the scandals have yet to be addressed.
Several audits have now highlighted the need to close further loopholes in the Senate’s expense rules. All of the recommendations in those audits must be addressed publicly and transparently, with indications on how they will be implemented and, if some are not to be implemented, a rationale.
The hiring of experienced professionals to fill the ranks of the Senate administration should continue. Those individuals should be empowered to take corrective action on expenses where necessary, without interference from senators – including those on the internal economy committee. When the Prime Minister fills the role of Clerk of the Senate, he should select a candidate with a record of sound public administration from outside the institution.
The proactive disclosure regime must go further to provide an appropriate level of transparency to the public. At a minimum, it should meet the requirements of cabinet ministers for travel expenses and members of the House of Commons for office expenses.
The Senate must put in place a robust, appropriate and fair mechanism to investigate suspected improprieties in a publicly transparent way that is free from political interference, in order to avoid the ad hoc nature of investigation and punishment seen in 2013 and in many previous cases.
The residency requirements of senators under the Constitution must be addressed, and a legal framework must be provided by which the Senate and public can judge whether senators are meeting their obligations to represent their regions when questions are raised.
Most importantly, however, there has to be a fundamental shift in the attitude of senators. The idea of the “honour system” still prevails in the senators’ travel policy, which states that its primary objective is “to ensure the fair treatment of persons required to travel on Senate business.” One senator recently told the Hill Times that further clarity of rules is required so as not to “leave Senators vulnerable.” The temptation still seems to be to defend and protect each other as individuals, rather than defending the public interest, and the Senate as a constituent part of Parliament.
Until the institution begins looking at its conduct through the eyes of the taxpayer, to protect the public purse and the integrity of our democratic institutions, it will never adequately address the issues at hand.
There has to be a fundamental shift in the attitude of senators.
As part of the fallout from the Senate scandals, former prime minister Stephen Harper distanced government from the institution when in 2013 he appointed a leader of the government in the senate who did not have a seat at his cabinet table. The current Prime Minister has continued this practice and has gone a step further by effectively removing senators from his party caucus. The full impact of these politically expedient decisions to distance the Conservatives and the Liberals from a damaged and maligned Senate will not be known for some time.
However, with increased independence comes increased responsibility. Senators must take every step to put in place tough, transparent, rules-based policies to govern their conduct. There are risks to not taking action. The next time there is a significant scandal involving the Senate, the sour taste in Canadians’ mouths as a result of the Duffy trial will turn bitter, and the entire political apparatus will be free to cut ties with the institution.
If that happens, the only way for the sitting prime minister to address the outrage will be to go to the provinces, or to the people, to seek the abolition of the Senate, and there will be no one but discredited senators to make the case for its continued existence.
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