Adam Dodek is a professor at the University of Ottawa and one of the founders of its Public Law Group. He is the author of The Canadian Constitution.
The Senate is potentially facing its greatest challenge since its creation in 1867. Senate ethics officer Lyse Ricard has filed her report concluding that Senator Don Meredith breached the Senate Ethics and Conflict of Interest Code by engaging in a two-year sexual relationship with a teenage girl. How will the Senate respond?
The Senate has been aware of these accusations since they were publicly reported in June, 2015. It is notable and laudable that the complaint against Mr. Meredith was lodged by Senator Leo Housakos who, at the time, was the Senate’s speaker. Both Mr. Housakos and Mr. Meredith were appointed to the upper chamber by former prime minister Stephen Harper. At the time he filed the complaint, Mr. Housakos asserted that the alleged conduct was in and of itself incompatible with the office of Senator. The Senate ethics officer has now found that those allegations have been proven.
Canadians can read the findings – all of the findings – in Ms. Ricard’s report. She rightly rejected Mr. Meredith’s request to produce both a private report and a sanitized public version. While that may have been standard operating procedure for the Senate a decade ago, it is no longer appropriate in an age of public accountability and transparency. In rejecting Mr. Meredith’s request, Ms. Ricard correctly prioritized the public interest over the senator’s privacy.
Now it is up to senators to take up the public interest and move to expel Mr. Meredith from the upper chamber. The Supreme Court has recognized that each chamber of Parliament – the House of Commons and the Senate – has the power to discipline its own members. This power arguably includes the power to expel one of its own members.
The Senate has never before invoked the power to remove one of its own because until now it has either tolerated extreme levels of misbehaviour or because miscreant senators have resigned under pressure. In 2011, former Liberal senator Raymond Lavigne resigned his seat in the Red Chamber after he was convicted of fraud and breach of trust in connection with the use of Senate funds. He resigned just days before the Senate was scheduled to hold a debate on his suspension and potential removal.
In 1998, public pressure forced the Senate to finally take action against Andrew Thompson, who was known as the “siesta senator” because he spent most of his time in Mexico rather than in Canada. The Senate suspended Mr. Thompson without pay and he retired two years later with his Senate seat intact. The Senate did not have the political will to act against Mr. Thompson. That inaction reinforced the Senate’s reputation as a school for scandal as chronicled in journalist Claire Hoy’s 1999 book Nice Work: The Continuing Scandal of Canada’s Senate.
Since the Senate expense scandal and the trial of Mike Duffy, the Senate has begun to clean up its own house. The Senate is currently engaged in a laudable modernization initiative. For his part, as opposition leader, Justin Trudeau took steps to distance himself from the scandal-plagued Senate. As Prime Minister, Mr. Trudeau has attempted to make the Senate more independent by changing the way senators are appointed and by relaxing attempts to control the operation of the Senate. All of this provides the foundation for a more independent and modern Senate that is trying to slowly earn the trust of an understandably skeptical Canadian public.
None of this will matter as long as the Senate shows itself unable or unwilling to deal with malfeasance among its own.
The Senate needs to move quickly to expel Mr. Meredith. The Senate ethics officer took nearly two years to complete her report because she had to await an investigation by Ottawa Police into Mr. Meredith’s conduct. Ottawa Police ultimately decided not to pursue criminal charges against the senator and Ms. Ricard was able to complete her report. Her job is done. It is now up to the Senate to do its job.
Whether the “new” Senate will be up to the task remains to be seen.Report Typo/Error
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