Skip to main content
opinion

Dean Jobb teaches journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax and is the author of Empire of Deception (HarperCollins Canada).

Personal trainers and make-up artists hired at taxpayers' expense? Complaints about eating ice-cold Camembert and broken crackers for breakfast? Business trips allegedly claimed as Senate travel?

If Josiah Wood were alive today, he would be shocked and disgusted by the revelations at Sen. Mike Duffy's trial, Sen. Pamela Wallin's footloose travel and the spectacle of other senators who appear to have lost sight of the public interest.

A dour, bearded merchant-turned-politician from New Brunswick, Wood served more than 15 years in the upper chamber during the Laurier era. He droned on about railway policy and industrial development and other issues that mattered to the business world, but in 1905 one subject raised his ire like no other – a two-thirds increase in the stipend paid to senators and MPs.

The amount of money involved seems reasonable now. The annual "indemnity" paid to senators and MPs was raised from $1,000 to $2,500, about $68,000 in today's terms. That's less than half a senator's current base salary, $142,400.

Wood believed a principle was at stake. The modest indemnity, he argued, was intended to defray the cost of living and working in Ottawa; it was not supposed to be a salary. "We are here not as paid representatives of the people," he scolded fellow senators during one debate. "We are here in my opinion, as trustees of the public funds." He refused to accept the additional money.

Such high-minded views found little support in the Red Chamber. Wood was one of New Brunswick's wealthiest men, one of his colleagues pointed out, and could "afford to serve here for nothing." Other senators were "not so well placed in life."

Wood also rejected a proposal to elect senators – an early attempt at Senate reform – on the grounds it would make the chamber's proceedings more partisan and deter "men of independent thought and action … from entering public life."

When it came to mixing personal and public interests, though, Wood was no saint. As a backbencher under prime minister John A. Macdonald in the 1880s, he was a vocal supporter of the Conservative government's policy of erecting tariff barriers to promote domestic manufacturing. He reaped the benefits, investing in a cotton mill and sugar refinery established in Moncton as a direct result of the tariffs.

And he accepted government subsidies to build a railway linking his hometown, Sackville, to the Northumberland Strait, which became a busy travel route to Prince Edward Island. In an era before conflict-of-interest rules, no one was overly concerned that Wood was the area's MP as well as the railway's president. He delivered jobs and boosted the local economy, and this has always been good politics.

While Wood's blatant promotion of his private interests is tough to overlook, it was typical of politicians of the time. His defence of the ideal of public service can be dismissed as posturing, but it was genuine. And as he grew older, he was determined to reconcile the ethical chasm between his words and his actions.

"Spiritual and moral progress," he feared, had "not kept pace with material advancement." So shortly before his death in 1927, he used his unclaimed Senate entitlement – it had grown to almost $15,000, more than $400,000 today – to establish a lectureship at his alma mater, Mount Allison University in Sackville, that's still going strong.

Scholars and public figures are invited to the campus to discuss the importance of citizenship and promotion of the public good – or, in the words of Wood's bequest, "the absolute necessity of honesty and honour, of integrity and truthfulness, of an altruistic public spirit." Lecturers have included former federal Conservative leader Robert Stanfield, economist John Kenneth Galbraith and, before his spectacular downfall, CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi.

Josiah Wood's old-fashioned notions are worth remembering as Canadians await the outcome of Sen. Duffy's trial, the RCMP investigation into Sen. Wallin's travel claims and the findings of the federal auditor-general's detailed investigation of senators' expenses, expected this spring.

Senators looking to rehabilitate the image of the Red Chamber – if such a thing is possible – would do well to remember their predecessor's plea for selfless public service.