“It must be an independent house having a free action of its own. …”
- Sir John A. Macdonald, speaking about the Senate
At the Conservative Party convention in Calgary this past weekend, Prime Minister Stephen Harper urged the Senate to “do the right thing, now and suspend those Senators without pay.” On Tuesday, he got his wish. The three Conservative Senators at the heart of the Senate expense scandal – Patrick Brazeau, Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin – were suspended without pay for the remainder of the session, which could last another two years.
With these Senators out of the public eye, Mr. Harper hopes that the dust will settle and that the scandal will not be top of mind for Canadians any longer. But this story is far from over, especially in light of the alleged involvement of (at least some in) the Prime Minister’s Office in Mr. Duffy’s repayment of $90,000 in ineligible living expenses. Mr. Duffy has said that not only was he given a cheque to cover his debt to the Senate, and another to cover his legal expenses, but that the PMO allegedly devised a cover up scheme to conceal how all of these expenses were paid. Not surprisingly, it looks like the RCMP is interested in how all of this might have come to pass.
The events that comprise this scandal have dire consequences, not only for the three Senators involved directly but also for the Senate as an institution and for Canadian democracy. Canadians had a tough time trusting politicians before this whole thing surfaced. The alleged misuse of public money for ineligible travel and housing expenses could only make things worse. Voters don’t need another reason to be suspicious or apathetic. Also, several high profile Senators – from both Liberal and Conservative ranks – have raised concerns over the propriety of the process by which these three Senators were suspended. Liberal leader in the Senate James Cowan said the process wasn’t fair, but was “designed to suit the political purposes of the prime minister” to silence the three Senators before they said anything else to damage his reputation. The sense of a lack of due process in the Senate undermines the institution’s credibility as a legitimate actor in a democratic country. Today, it is much easier for the Senate’s critics to say we’re better off without it.
The Senate expense scandal has raised very serious questions about the independence of the Senate as well. The Senate is supposed to function as an autonomous, self-regulating institution, independent from both the House of Commons and the political executive (the prime minister and cabinet). In this context, the constitutional status quo whereby Senators are appointed until the age of 75 has a certain logic to it: appointed officials with protected tenure can exercise judgment without having to fear reprimand from either the electorate or the person who appointed them. This way, they can perform the “sober, second thought” function effectively.
Senators are not political appointees like chiefs of staff are in the sense they do not serve at the pleasure of the prime minister. Even though he appoints them, he does not have the authority to hire and fire them at will. A prime minister, through the power of the Crown, selects Senators but, once appointed, Senators owe him nothing. At least, that’s the theory that is supposed to guide the practice. But the events and allegations leading to the Senate suspensions give cause to question whether and to what extent the Senate might have become politicized by the PMO.
The three Senators have spoken publicly about being the victims of the PMO’s political agenda to dump them as quickly as possible so that the prime minister could distance himself from his disgraced appointees. But the Senators were suspended by a vote in the Senate itself, not by the PMO. Does this mean that the Conservative caucus in the Senate was following orders from the PMO? If so, why would they do this? The suspension votes broke down according to partisan fault lines, for the most part. Only one Conservative Senator, Hugh Segal, voted against the suspensions while only one Liberal Senator, Paul Massicotte, voted in favour. With a majority in the Senate, the Conservatives were able to get the motions through.
If there is any truth to insinuations that Conservatives in the Senate were carrying out the will of the PMO, this poses potentially fatal problems for the Senate’s credibility, integrity and legitimacy. A Senate that follows orders from the political executive serves no democratic purpose whatsoever.
Future debate over Senate reform will be even more prominent than it was before and, unfortunately, it will now be tarnished by residual suspicion, resentment and frustration attached to the scandal. Institutional changes, when they do occur, often come as reactions to crises or scandals. Canadians will be looking to ensure that a scandal like this one won’t happen again, but it is not clear what, if any, institutional design would be more effective in preventing problems like the inappropriate expense claims that are alleged to have occurred. One thing is for certain: calls for abolition will resonate even more deeply than before.
Lori Turnbull is an associate professor of political science at Dalhousie University in Halifax.