Politics Insider delivers premium analysis and access to Canada's policymakers and politicians. Visit the Politics Insider homepage for insight available only to subscribers.
Senators are expected to vote on a motion Thursday asking the Auditor-General of Canada to conduct a comprehensive review of members' expenses, the latest attempt by members of the Red Chamber to quell a damaging controversy over improper expense claims.
The minority Liberals have called the motion a "distraction" from more serious questions about a secret payment from the Prime Minister's Office to Senator Mike Duffy – but say they will support it nonetheless when it comes to a vote.
If the Auditor-General agrees to conduct the review, it will be the second time in two years that his office has audited the Red Chamber. The last investigation, released in June 2012, looked at the Senate's administration as a whole and found "no major weaknesses" in the way it was managed, Auditor-General Michael Ferguson said in a news release last year.
But the 2012 audit did not zero in on the expense issue, looking only at a handful of unnamed senators' claims to determine if the rules were generally being followed. One of the concerns flagged at the time was a lack of documentation supporting senators' housing and other expense claims – an issue that now looks more like an early warning of much deeper problem with the way some Senators handle their claims.
"Because some of the expense claim files do not always contain sufficient documentation, it is difficult for the Administration to clearly conclude that expenses are appropriate," the 2012 audit said.
It found two out of the seven housing claims examined did not include adequate proof that a senator claiming a flat rate for a second home in the National Capital Region actually owned that residence throughout the year.
The audit also found that some senators failed to properly explain their travel and living expense claims or offered limited information to support a stated purpose of the expense. One claim for a trip to Washington, D.C., for example, did not state the purpose beyond indicating that it was for parliamentary business.
The report recommended that the Senate's administration do more to ensure claims are always backed up by documentation and that they bring cases of non-compliance forward to the Senate's committee on internal economy – the group of senators in charge of handling the Senate's financial administration.
This time, the proposed audit would focus more specifically on senators' expenses and the process for managing them. It is not immediately clear if the review would look at each member's expenses or if some Senators would be selected at random.
Senator Marjory LeBreton, the government leader in the Senate, said Wednesday that the scope of the new audit would be left entirely to the Auditor-General to determine. The Auditor-General's office said on Wednesday that it had not yet received any formal correspondence from the Senate.
If the review goes ahead, it will likely take months before any report is tabled. When it is, it could find that concerns with housing claims and travel expenses go beyond the small group of senators currently at the centre of the controversy – which could further undermine the institution. Asked on Wednesday if he expects the audit to uncover additional expense claim abuses, Liberal Senator Jim Munson replied, "I certainly hope not."
Kim Mackrael is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa.