The Senate is preparing to adopt tougher rules for travel expense claims, reforms that arrive as it reopens a probe into Senator Mike Duffy’s conduct – and the investigation is expected to take a harder line this time.
Marjory LeBreton, Leader of the Conservative government in the Senate, said she expects to move for a vote Tuesday to embrace the new reporting standards. She wants the new regime to take effect as soon as possible – one intended to give Senate administrators more authority to question senators on their travel expenses.
Stung by public criticism over Senate expense claims and a secret deal by a top PMO aide to personally bail out Mr. Duffy over improper expense claims, the Conservatives have responded by saying they’re committed to reforming or abolishing the Senate and are merely waiting for the Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of these options.
“Canadians understand that our Senate, as it stands today, must either change, or like the old upper houses of our provinces, vanish,” Ms. LeBreton said.
“In the meantime, we will fix the Senate’s rules governing travel and expenses … [to] close loopholes and protect taxpayers from those who want to abuse the present system.”
On Tuesday, the Senate committee charged with revisiting its investigation of Mr. Duffy’s improperly claimed expenses meets to decide its next move. Critics have accused the Conservative-dominated Internal Economy committee of “whitewashing” an earlier report on Mr. Duffy’s expense claims and alleged that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office interfered to soften that probe’s conclusions.
The Tories deny the PMO told the Senate what to write. But, Ms. LeBreton says, the report would have been different if members of the Internal Economy committee had known everything they know now – including recent media reports that Mr. Duffy claimed taxpayer-funded Senate per-diem expenses while also billing Tory campaigns for 2011 election-race appearances.
She predicted Sunday the Senate committee is prepared to take a harder line on Mr. Duffy now.
“I just am confident that having the information – this new information about claiming expenses from [both] the party and also the public … there is no way that they won’t take the proper action.”
The Conservative Senator said the committee could decide to call in the Auditor-General – a move she said she’d back. Both Mr. Duffy and the Liberals have called for public, rather than closed-door, hearings on the matter.
Ms. LeBreton said she’d also like to see a new expense tracking system that automatically audits the top 10 spenders in the Senate.
She said Canadians view the Red Chamber as illegitimate today and said the only way it will survive is if it changes.
Mr. Harper’s Senate reform plans are on hold after he asked the Supreme Court to consider whether the chamber can be abolished or reformed – with elections and term limits – and how this might be done. The court is expected to hear the matter this fall.
James Cowan, the Liberal Leader in the Senate, said his party will support the rule changes on travel expense claims.
But Mr. Cowan called the travel reporting reforms a distraction, saying he wants to focus on the $90,000 cheque that former Harper chief of staff Nigel Wright provided to cover Mr. Duffy’s improperly claimed expenses as well as how the last Senate committee report on the PEI politician was altered to tone down its findings. A draft version of the report contains several key sentences missing from the final version that would have cast the senator in a more negative light.
Mr. Cowan said the Liberals have no plans now to launch efforts to strip Mr. Duffy of his seat or privileges, saying that would be premature.
“My view is Senator Duffy is entitled to due process. He says he wants to tell his story and that he feels that once we’ve heard his story, everything will be fine. He ought to have that opportunity,” the Liberal said.
A mid-May CTV News story said the deal between Mr. Wright and Mr. Duffy entailed the senator “reimbursing taxpayers in return for financial help and a promise from the government to go easy on him.”
The new travel expense rules will abolish the honour system that allowed senators to merely say they were on Senate business when submitting receipts. They will have to provide a detailed reason for travel.
The new rules will restrict international travel, require senators to maintain mileage logs and to collect receipts for taxi rides, and cap the number of flights they can take from Ottawa to destinations other than their provincial residence.
It will also restrict per-diem compensation for senators. to days the Senate sits, or when senators attend committee meetings as well as 20 additional days when on approved business.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said this past weekend he’s not in favour of abolishing the Senate without consulting provinces. He noted, for instance, in an interview with a Montreal newspaper that Senate seat allocation confers an advantage on Quebec. “We have 24 senators from Quebec and there are just six [each] from Alberta and British Columbia. It’s to our advantage,” he told La Presse.
The federal Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner last week launched a formal investigation of Mr. Wright’s payment. The Senate Ethics Officer is reviewing the transaction, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are reviewing expense claims paid out to several senators to see whether an investigation is warranted.
In other travel expense reforms, Senator administrators will be required to provide the Senate Internal Economy committee with monthly reports on travel patterns.
Mr. Trudeau, speaking in an interview Sunday, said Quebec isn’t the only province to benefit from the Senate’s current seat allocation. He said a Senate of elected politicians would likely exercise greater power and this, he argues, would hurt western provinces by entrenching the more populous Central Canadian representation in the chamber. “You would have a tremendous amount of real weight for provinces like Ontario and Quebec and the East.”
He said the provinces deserve to be consulted before proposing changes to the Senate. The Liberal Leader said he supports reforming the Senate. But, Mr. Trudeau said it’s wrong, “to toss around the idea of abolishing it without thinking about the consequences for the provinces and on various minority language groups including francophones outside of Quebec, anglophones inside Quebec or a French-speaking province like Quebec.”
With a report from May Warren