The Harper government’s leader in the Senate is calling in Canada’s independent spending watchdog to perform an across-the-board audit of all expenses incurred by senators.
Senator Marjory LeBreton, a Harper cabinet minister, will introduce a motion Tuesday to enlist Auditor-General Michael Ferguson’s office to probe all Senate spending. The Conservatives dominate the Red Chamber and the motion should pass easily.
Recruiting a high-profile investigator to conduct an wide-ranging audit is an effort by the Conservatives to convince Canadians that arm’s-length scrutiny is being brought to bear on a spending controversy where the Senate has been seen to be too lenient. Leaked documents have shown, for example, that a Senate committee softened its criticism of PEI Senator Mike Duffy over his more than $90,000 worth of improperly claimed expenses.
“Obviously the only body that would really satisfy the public we are serious about this is the Auditor-General of Canada,” Ms. LeBreton said in an interview.
Ms. LeBreton said it’s clear that Canadians don’t believe senators can police themselves.
She defends the steps the Senate has already taken – including hiring Deloitte to audit some claims – but acknowledged the public didn’t agree. “There was a perception, more than a reality, that it’s a closed little club” in the Red Chamber, she said.
The government leader in the Senate said Mr. Ferguson and his office to will have free rein as auditors – “to go where they want to go.”
She cited the fact she used the word “comprehensive” in a statement about the motion. “That means everything.”
Ms. LeBreton, who has worked for the Conservative Party and a predecessor party, the Progressive Conservatives, all the way back to John Diefenbaker’s era, said she’s not sure calling in the Auditor-General will calm voter anger over Senate expenses.
“I think the public is pretty outraged,” she said. “I hope the end result will be the public will realize we are serious about accountability.”
She acknowledged a major audit could expose the misdeeds of some senators.
She said she believes most senators are careful with public funds and work hard.
“If there are some among us who choose not to act appropriately, then let the chips fall where they may,” Ms. LeBreton said.
“If it’s bad for them, then they better have a strong look in the mirror and see who’s looking back at them.”
The government has found itself engulfed by the Senate expenses controversy since mid-May when the Prime Minister’s then chief of staff Nigel Wright was revealed to have secretly dipped into his own fortune to bail out Mr. Duffy over improperly claimed expenses the senator was under pressure to return to taxpayers.
Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson is investigating the transaction. Mr. Wright has retained Guy Giorno, another former chief of staff to Stephen Harper, to provide legal advice. Mr. Giorno is an expert in ethics laws.
Three Harper appointees to the Red Chamber – and one Liberal appointee – have faced criticism and audits over claims they filed. Mr. Duffy has repaid his housing expense claims and senators Patrick Brazeau and Mac Harb have been ordered to repay tens of thousands of dollars as well. Senator Pamela Wallin’s audit is continuing.
The RCMP is still reviewing whether it will launch an investigation into the expense-claims matter.
The proposed Auditor-General’s audit would go beyond reports tabled last year that merely examined the administration of both the Senate and the House of Commons, but did not audit MPs or senators. The audits did not look at contracts managed by senators, nor did it audit the board of internal economy that oversees spending in the House of Commons. Both reports were generally positive regarding administration in both chambers.
Separately on Monday, a Conservative backbencher tabled a private member’s bill that would strip parliamentarians – in the Senate or Commons – of their public pensions if they are convicted of a crime with a maximum sentence of at least two years.
The Harper government hasn’t said whether it will use its majority power to pass the bill, but if it did, the legislation could end up being a punishment for any parliamentarians who fall far afoul of the law.
NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus said he supports calling in the Auditor-General but said the fact the government waited so long to do it suggests it is motivated by fear of any angry electorate rather than principle.
With reports from Bill Curry and Kim Mackrael