Proposals to toughen the rules governing senators’ expense claims are a step in the right direction but fall short in one critical area: residency. It is still unclear how, or even whether, the Senate will enforce the constitutional requirement that senators be residents of the province they are appointed to represent. This is the moment for Parliament to finally bring clarity to a murky area.
Most provinces require residents to be physically present 183 days a year to be eligible for a health-care card, or to have lived in the province for six months to vote in an election. But the Constitution, in setting the rules for the qualifications of a senator, merely says, “He shall be resident in the Province for which he is appointed.”
Thanks to the Constitution’s vagueness, a senator can live full-time in Ottawa and rarely return to his or her home province. Their only other related obligation is to own property worth at least $4,000 in the province they represent.
Most Canadians have a more concrete definition of the word “resident.” It’s where they live, pay provincial and municipal taxes, and fulfill any number of other requirements that define residency.
Parliament, either through legislation or a change to the Senate’s rules, could easily clear this up. There is no need for major reform or constitutional wrangling. There is just a need for clarity. Should a senator be required to hold the health card of the province he or she represents? Should they be obliged to provide proof that they spend 180 days a year in their home province? 120 days? 60?
The Senate is an institution that provides a necessary regional counterbalance to the House of Commons. It should be reformed, but there is no need to abolish it because of some alleged expenses cheats. On the contrary, if the Senate takes the simple step of defining the word “resident” at the same time as it toughens its rules around expenses, it would be a first step down a long path to restore the Senate as a needed and respected part of Canada’s Parliament.