A series of Senate audits has brought renewed attention to the constitutional requirement that senators reside in the province they represent, with both Conservative and Liberals saying they will push for greater clarity when the Red Chamber reconvenes this fall.
The Supreme Court of Canada is preparing to consider several possible changes put forward by the federal government, including term limits for senators and consultations with the provinces on future appointments. The court was asked to consider what would be required to accomplish those changes and to look at whether Parliament has the power to abolish the Senate without approval from the provinces.
The Senate has come under intense scrutiny over the past year, with a series of damaging spending audits casting three Harper appointees and a former Liberal into disrepute and putting other members on the defensive amid questions about the value of the Red Chamber.
Conservative Senator Gerald Comeau, who chairs the Senate committee on internal economy, told The Globe and Mail that he expects to receive a briefing on the residency issue from Senate legal staff in early September. At the same time, Senate Liberal Leader James Cowan says he will renew his push for a special committee to look into residency rules and provide senators with more guidance on what is permitted.
At issue is a constitutional requirement that senators "shall be resident" in the province they were appointed to represent, but does not define the term or indicate what a senator must do to prove residency.
The requirement attracted significant public attention last year when media reports revealed that some senators were claiming secondary living expenses for homes in the National Capital Region, despite indications that they spent most of their time living in the area. Senators whose primary residences are more than 100 kilometres from Parliament Hill are entitled to reimbursement for the added cost of living in Ottawa while they are working.
Auditors found that Senators Mike Duffy, Mac Harb and Patrick Brazeau should not have been reimbursed for their secondary residences, in part because of how much time they spent in the Ottawa area. A fourth review of Senator Pamela Wallin's expenses resulted in an order that she repay improper travel bills but cleared her of any wrongful claims related to her living expenses.
In looking at the senators' living expense claims, auditors considered several criteria, including how much time senators spent in their "primary residence" and whether they voted, had a health card and driver's licence, and paid taxes in that province.
A continuing RCMP investigation into some senators' spending found that Mr. Duffy only sought a driver's licence in Prince Edward Island once he was appointed to the Senate and that he waited until an investigation into his and other senators' housing claims had commenced to request a health card from that province.
But it's not clear that the rules used to determine the legitimacy of senators' housing expenses can be applied to questions about whether a senator is entitled to sit in the Red Chamber, Mr. Cowan said.
"I think it's appropriate that we now get some definition around that rather than be dealing with it when somebody raises a question about you or me," he said in an interview on Wednesday. "I haven't met anybody who says we don't need to do that."
Outgoing Government Senate Leader Marjory LeBreton suggested this year that senators need only sign a declaration of qualification after they are appointed, but others say the rules should be tighter to ensure the provinces are being represented fairly.
Mr. Comeau said the internal economy committee, which managed the Senate expense audits, does not have a mandate to act on the residency issue, but requested the legal opinion because "it is a question that has been arising more and more." He said he does not yet know whether the text – or a summary of its contents – will be made public.