One line in former justice Ian Binnie's report on senators' expenses made it all sound fine: "I impute no bad motives to any of the senators," he wrote. No wonder the Senate made that quote the headline of its press release. Don't worry, Canada. All is well in the Red Chamber.
But read on in Mr. Binnie's report, and he does find a problem: Senators judge their work as important public business and some don't worry much about putting reasonable limits on the costs.
That's always been the nub of this mess, from Mike Duffy to the 30 senators named in an Auditor-General's report. Senators have wide latitude to decide what is Senate business and many felt they're so important they're entitled to rack up expenses on the public dime.
Mr. Binnie asserted the rules are clear, but that shouldn't be the end of it. There is no reform under way that really addresses the Senate's expense problem. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to reduce partisanship in the Senate, but there's still the money.
Think of Colin Kenny, a member of the Senate Liberal caucus appointed by then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau on the day before he left office in 1984.
There were questions that had been flagged by the Auditor-General about whether Mr. Kenny expensed trips that were more for personal purposes than business. Mr. Kenny, who took a special interest in defence and security, would fly to Toronto or Vancouver to meet with a journalist, and then attend personal activities. He had breakfast in Toronto several times with The Globe and Mail's Colin Freeze – and used that as the justification for his travel expenses.
On one such occasion, Mr. Kenny had meetings with two journalists and then-Toronto police chief Bill Blair; he also had a suit fitting the night before and dinner at Scaramouche and travelled by limo.
But even if Mr. Kenny considered that justified as a business trip, Mr. Binnie found he did it so often the expenses were unreasonable – dozens of trips to Toronto and Vancouver, including many meetings with the same journalists.
The problem was not the rules, Mr. Binnie said. "In my view … the problem for many of the senators singled out by the Auditor-General was not so much the clarity of the rules as it was a casual attitude towards the limits of their entitlement," he wrote. The senators didn't ask whether the public business accomplished was worth the expense.
Mr. Binnie was by no means a hanging judge. The former Supreme Court justice came into the whole Senate expense saga after Auditor-General Michael Ferguson flagged the expenses of those 30 senators, and Mr. Binnie's job was to arbitrate the complaints of senators who felt the Auditor-General had been unfair. Mr. Binnie heard their appeals, in effect – in all, 14 senators asked for arbitration. Mr. Binnie usually lowered the sums they owed. If senators had a reasonable explanation for undocumented expenses, he said, he took it.
Mr. Binnie didn't have a mandate to look into nefarious intent. Mr. Duffy's criminal trial is presumably going to define some of the bright red lines about senatorial expenses. The former Supreme Court justice was applying the wisdom of Solomon to settling expense tabs, not deciding who's a crook. But he decided the rules are clear and said senators now know their expenses will be scrutinized.
But all is not well. Mr. Binnie's report notes that senators, as independent legislators, authorize their own expenses. There are guidelines on what is Senate business, but there's still a lot of subjective choice in them – a senator, Mr. Binnie noted, can pick any issue he wants as his interest, even if no one else thinks it's worthwhile. Mr. Kenny picked security issues. "He essentially made and pursued his own agenda at public expense," Mr. Binnie said.
That's a lot of leeway for an unelected legislator. Especially if there's no cap. Mr. Kenny claimed $153,088 over 2011 and 2012.
And that's where obvious reform is needed: Senators should have tight caps on expenses. Mr. Binnie concluded some senators don't do a cost-benefit analysis on their expenses. But most Canadians probably think no senators' expense is worth the money. A cap would at least set the limits of their entitlement.