Dodge, obfuscate, duck, weave. That was the path that Senator Don Meredith took when the Red Chamber’s ethics officer investigated allegations he had a relationship with a teenage girl. Now that a damning report has been issued, the senator insists God has forgiven him.
But the Senate has no right to be so forgiving. The Red Chamber can’t judge whether Mr. Meredith can be redeemed. It must decide whether he crossed a line with conduct that damages the dignity of the Senate, such as it is, and whether he is in contempt. His deceit, in the relationship with the teenager and when Senate ethics officer Lyse Ricard investigated, means the answer is yes.
It’s important for the Senate, despite its tattered reputation, to be able police its own. No one else can. Senators don’t have bosses and don’t answer to voters. It does have the power, and a duty to use it.
Just about everyone has urged Mr. Meredith to resign. But the senator won’t quit. He has asked for forgiveness and gone on medical leave. He has suggested a racist double standard is at play, presumably because other senators have committed misbehaviour and not been sanctioned – an allegation that could never justify ignoring more bad conduct.
His lawyer, Selwyn Pieters, has argued that there’s no legal grounds to do anything further: Mr. Meredith’s conduct was a “moral failing,” he said, “not a legal failing.” And he argued the Constitution doesn’t allow for removing a senator except on a few specific legal grounds.
So this week, the Senate will struggle with what to do when a senator won’t leave, as the Senate ethics committee reviews Ms. Ricard’s report.
Mr. Pieters is right that his client’s behaviour doesn’t seem to be a breach of the law.
Mr. Meredith met the woman, identified as Ms. M, when she was 16 and he was 48, handing her his Senate business card with his cellphone number, according to Ms. Ricard. They had a relationship that became sexual – touching on occasion, and Skype chats where Ms. M partly undressed and Mr. Meredith sometimes masturbated.
Mr. Meredith insisted the two did not have sexual intercourse until Ms. M turned 18, although Ms. Ricard concluded there was an encounter a few weeks before Ms. M’s 18th birthday, where Mr. Meredith briefly penetrated her, calling it a “teaser.” Either way, it’s not a crime: The age of consent is 16 and Ottawa Police laid no charges.
Mr. Pieters argued that means the senator has not done anything on the list of grounds for expulsion from the Senate, such as conviction for a serious crime, in Section 31 of the Constitution. No felony, no foul.
But there was a foul. This isn’t a matter of passing moral judgment on a relationship between consenting adults. Mr. Meredith didn’t just give a 16-year-old his Senate business card, he promised to put the 17-year-old Ms. M on a committee to honour the first black soldier to win the Victoria Cross, to introduce her to people; he was the important senator as he gradually developed a sexual relationship with her.
The hypocrisy of the senator, a pastor and self-described youth advocate who was making speeches in the Senate warning of the dangers of social media for vulnerable youths, to then watch a minor undress on Skype isn’t a legal issue. But it is an affront to the Senate’s dignity.
So was his evasiveness with Ms. Ricard. Mr. Meredith first told her he did not have a relationship with Ms. M. He didn’t recall if he had masturbated over Skype. He denied that some events took place, but Ms. Ricard found documentary evidence suggesting they had.
All this matters because the Senate doesn’t need to find a felony to punish a senator. Like the House of Commons, it has an old power, confirmed in the Constitution, to protect its privileges. It can find someone in contempt for offending the dignity of the Senate.
Whether the Senate can go as far as expelling a senator is an open question. But if the Senate decides it has that power, the Supreme Court is not likely to overrule it – the courts are loath to intervene in Parliament’s affairs.
And the Senate definitely does have the power to suspend a senator for the duration of a parliamentary session. And then to suspend the senator again in the next one. And so on. It can ensure Mr. Meredith doesn’t sit again. And it should.Report Typo/Error