Ottawa

Time to change Senate’s club culture

The Globe and Mail

The Senate chamber in Ottawa. (Dave Chan For The Globe and Mail)

The cascading revelations of senators behaving badly have once again ignited calls for the Upper House to either be reformed or abolished.

Reform is difficult; abolition impossible. But what might be possible is to change the culture of the place, along with some rules.

Saskatchewan Senator Pamela Wallin, a Conservative, has joined the list of senators who appear to live primarily in the national capital but who nonetheless claim living expenses. Other alleged miscreants include Conservatives Mike Duffy and Patrick Brazeau and Liberal Mac Harb.

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Ms. Wallin rebutted questions raised by the NDP about her real place of residence. “Saskatchewan is my home and I have owned property there for many years,” she said in a statement. “I work hard in Saskatchewan, in Ottawa and across this country to fulfill my duties as a senator.”

The Constitution Act of 1867 states that a senator “shall be resident in the province for which he is appointed.”

But as Liberal Senator Colin Kenny points out, there simply isn’t any written definition of what residency means: whether it entails living in the home province a minimum number of days, filing income tax from that province, having a health card or driver’s licence, or some other criteria “It’s been left very vague,” he said in an interview. “I can think of no legislation or regulations that define it precisely.”

Until recently, it wasn’t much of an issue. In Quebec, for example, senators must live or have property in the district – there are 24 of them – they represent.

The constitutional scholar Ned Franks chuckles that, back in the day, each Quebec senator would own a sliver of land in his district, which he would then pass on to his successor.

The truth is that the Senate “is a gentleman’s club with some women in it,” Prof. Franks said in an interview. Rules are few and the honour system prevails.

It is one thing, though, for a senator to have his province in his heart rather than on his driver’s licence; it is another thing to claim tens of thousands of dollars of living expenses every year, as though you were taking the red-eye back home every Friday night.

Mr. Duffy and Ms. Wallin are former journalists; they should know better than anyone how people react when politicians are thought to be fiddling with the rules.

If the Senate’s committee on internal economy finds that Mr. Duffy and Ms. Wallin are not, in fact, permanent residents of the provinces they represent, and that they were not entitled to file living expenses, then Prime Minister Stephen Harper will have to decide whether to expel them from caucus, as Senator Patrick Brazeau was for alleged physical and sexual abuse.

(Then there is Mr. Harb, a former Ottawa alderman and Ottawa MP who now says he lives in Pembroke.)

Beyond that, the time may have come for the Senate to put its rules in writing. Over the years, a sufficient number of senators have abused the honour system to have dishonoured the system itself.

In every respect, that which is implicit should be made explicit. The committee of internal economy could begin by demanding receipts for expenses – all of them. A culture of accountability must replace the club culture.

If residency is important, one way to enforce it might be to proceed with Conservative legislation that would see senators elected to fixed terms. A candidate’s ties to the province would no doubt factor in voters’ decisions.

The NDP and many commentators believe that the Senate has become so irrelevant and rife with abuse that it should be abolished. Mr. Harper, when he referred his Senate reform legislation to the Supreme Court, asked the court to rule on the constitutional requirements for abolishing the Senate entirely.

But both Prof. Franks and Senator Kenny suspect the Constitution doesn’t permit such a thing. Canada has a federal parliament composed of a lower chamber that represents the popular will and an upper chamber that represents the regional interest. Abolishing the Senate, they believe, may be as impossible as abolishing the House.

Tempting though the thought might be some days in both cases.

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