Senator Mike Duffy's expense scandal is now Justin Trudeau's problem.
Not in the literal sense, of course. Mr. Duffy, acquitted last Thursday, is free to take his seat in the Senate and move on. But the unfinished business of reining in senators' opportunities to use public money loosely, to stop the unseemly practices that drive Canadians crazy – that's on Mr. Trudeau now.
Now that we know it's no crime to claim travel expenses when you are at your long-time home, or to channel your research budget through a contract to a friend, it's clear that responsibility for controlling the spending of senators is located on Parliament Hill. That means Mr. Trudeau.
The Prime Minister promised to make the Red Chamber a less partisan place, and has at least started change in that direction. In the absence of a constitutional amendment, he argued, that's the best reform possible. But that leaves another big flaw that can be addressed, one that galls Canadians: the idea that the Senate is a gravy train.
What bugged people about Mike Duffy's expense claims – and other excesses in the Senate – hasn't disappeared because Justice Charles Vaillancourt ruled that they didn't rise to the level of a crime.
It was the sense of entitlement. It was billing the public for travel that mixed a lot of personal business in with little political business. It was the fact that so-called Senate business done on the public tab was often partisan, not parliamentary. It was the discretion that senators had to claim reimbursement for so many things with so few controls, such as hiring a personal trainer as a policy consultant. And through the trial, the public learned Mr. Duffy didn't break many rules because the Senate didn't really have any. Senators could do want they wanted with public money, and Mr. Duffy did. But in the end, such expense issues were deemed a matter for workplace supervisors, not the criminal courts. The Senate has tightened its policies, but not nearly enough. It's Mr. Trudeau's job to push for more.
That might seem strange. Mr. Trudeau kicked Liberal senators out of his caucus. He appointed independents, and argued senators should not be controlled by the PMO. And the Senate is an independent body, responsible for administering its own affairs.
But none of that diminishes the Prime Minister's responsibility. It is the government – the executive – that is the budgeting authority in our system. Only the government can propose Senate budgets – this year, $90-million – even if Parliament has to vote on it. That makes the government responsible for proposing controls.
And they can do it. The government regularly proposes rules for MPs in the Commons. And although senators could reject reforms in a vote, they'd be unlikely to do so now, with the whiff of scandal still in the air. The Trudeau government's representative in the Senate, Peter Harder, should table reforms soon.
It should be more than a few tweaks. Justice Vaillancourt noted the Senate now has a new contracting policy. But it's not enough. Canadians want to see tight limits on the discretion of unelected legislators. And the amounts must be capped, because ultimately senators don't answer to anyone for their judgments. The Senate policy that considers partisan matters part of parliamentary duties should be trashed. Canadians don't want to pay for the partisan activities of the unelected. If it's not about the review of a piece of legislation, forget it.
Travel expenses should be capped, so senators don't have leeway to make bad choices. And make it all public, to invite scrutiny. Housing? Give every senator a modest annual allowance for a secondary residence, but don't let him or her claim travel status when there. Contracts? Slash the budgets. Senators don't need to pay outside speechwriters or consultants, as Mr. Duffy did, and if they can't get their research done through the Library of Parliament or staff, they should do it themselves.
Mr. Trudeau cut loose his own senators two years ago, leaving him free to disown abuses in the Red Chamber. But he can't ignore the transgressions now, not after Mr. Duffy's trial. One hopes senators will now be careful with public money. But the next time there's an abuse, the blame belongs to the Prime Minister who allowed it to happen.