Senators are working on new ways to beef up their own ethics rules, including whether they should be more forthcoming about the money they make on the side.
In addition to their $132,300 annual public salary, senators can sit on corporate boards or hold other jobs provided their moonlighting doesn’t contravene the Senate’s conflict-of-interest rules.
But a committee of senators is currently working to update its ethics code based on the advice of outgoing Senate ethics officer Jean Fournier, who describes some of the existing rules as “almost impossible to defend.”
“I think all in all, it’s moving along quite well,” said Conservative Senator Terrence Stratton, who chairs the Senate’s conflict-of-interest committee. The senator expects the committee’s work will be ready by late February or March, but said it was too early to say which of Mr. Fournier’s recommendations will be adopted.
The review of rules comes amid big changes to the institution, as a Conservative government bill now before Parliament would impose non-renewable, nine-year term limits on new senators. The Senate Reform Act introduced in June would also set up a process for the Prime Minister to appoint senators who have been elected by provincial referendums.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is expected to nominate new senators soon, given that the 75-seat chamber currently has seven vacancies. Also, six senators are scheduled to retire in 2012.
Meanwhile, senators are bandying about names to replace Mr. Fournier. The Conservative government does not appear to be pursuing plans – outlined in a proposed law introduced in 2009 but never passed – that would have folded the office and placed it under the office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner that oversees the House of Commons.
Mr. Fournier – the first Senate Ethics Officer – submitted a resignation letter almost a year ago, even though he was only six years into a seven-year term. Mr. Fournier hasn’t launched a single investigation since his appointment in 2005. In contrast, the House of Commons Ethics Commissioner conducted 18 investigations of MPs during the same period.
In a candid annual report, Mr. Fournier warned senators that it “would be regrettable to maintain the status quo” and proposed a handful of rule changes to improve the system.
“In the absence of openness, transparency and accountability, the public and the media will suspect that senators are covering up for each other,” he wrote.
In response, the Senate’s conflict-of-interest committee took up Mr. Fournier’s challenge, asking him to stay until March 31, 2012, so they can consider his proposed changes to the Senate’s ethics rules.
Mr. Fournier’s recommendations would see senators disclose the source and nature, but not the dollar value, of any non-Senate income over $2,000 per year as well as any assets and liabilities over $10,000. He also calls for the office’s inquiry reports to be made public immediately, replacing the current system in which they would be filed away, “never to see the light of day.”
Senators would also have to disclose more information about the private interests of family members, and the disclosures of Senators would be posted online. At present, the public must visit the Ethics Officer’s Office in person to view disclosure reports.
Government transparency advocate Duff Conacher, the founder of Democracy Watch, said while some of the proposals are welcome, they fail to address the root problems with the office. Mr. Conacher said a broad exemption in the rules for senators and MPs – ruling out conflicts when policy matters are of “general application” – should be eliminated. He also says the Senate office should be made independent of a committee of senators.
“The office is a bad joke,” he said. “It is senators investigating senators, because senators control whether there can be an investigation, control the scope of the investigation and recommend penalties. So [Mr. Fournier’s]recommendations will do nothing to change that other than the ruling will be made public.”