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Lori Turnbull is interim director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University and fellow at the Public Policy Forum.

In politics, image management is paramount. How things look is at least as important as how things are. Politicians are subject to a web of ethics and accountability rules, including codes of conduct and expenditure-reporting requirements, all for the purpose of assuring Canadians that their representatives are held to clear standards of ethics and can be punished for non-compliance. Ethics rules are communication products in that they tell politicians and voters what it means to be ethical in a political context. The parliamentarians who draft and approve these rules for themselves hope that they encourage public trust in political actors and institutions.

Of course, these rules have limited success in achieving their primary goals. They tend to focus on tangible, less complicated measures of ethics, such as limitations on accepting gifts, rather than more complicated questions such as, “What does it mean to have integrity?” or “How do we punish a politician who lies?” As a result, these rules and codes tend to miss the mark when it comes to capturing the public’s sense of what it means to be ethical. Mere compliance with ethics regulations does not convince the public that politicians are “good.” In fact, the public won’t even notice when the rules are followed. Good behaviour doesn’t make for very interesting headlines.

All of this said, we rarely see politicians backtracking from ethics rules or scrapping them altogether, because it would send the wrong message. However, the Senate appears to be willing to take this risk. As reported in The Globe and Mail this week, the Senate has relaxed the rules to allow Senators to use their hospitality budgets to supplement their housing allowances and, furthermore, to do this without having to submit monthly housing-expense reports. The accommodation budget is currently at $25,000 a year and the amended rules would allow senators to carry over their $3,000 hospitality budgets to be able to secure better accommodations.

In practice, these changes are not a big deal. Senators are not increasing their budgets; they are simply moving a relatively small amount of cash from one pile to another. With respect to the reporting requirements, although they would not have to submit monthly reports, they would have to submit either proof of their leases or of their ownership of property in the Ottawa precinct. Funds will be paid directly from Senate administration to landlords and to the senators who own their residences. That seems to make sense from a logistics perspective and does not expose the system to serious threats of misuse of funds.

However, the optics of this decision are puzzling. Even with the new approach to Senate appointments and the various substantive legislative amendments that the Senate has initiated, the institution still has a legitimacy problem. It has never been able to change the channel from the expense scandal that dominated headlines just a few years ago, when Mike Duffy was on trial for 31 charges related to an alleged misuse of public funds, specifically with respect to his housing claims. The take-home message from his acquittal was that he was not guilty of breaking the rules because there were no rules to break. In relaxing the rules that had been tightened during the time of the scandal, the Senate takes a political risk with its already shaky reputation.

Relaxing the rules will make people worry that the Duffy situation could happen all over again. Worse still, statements from senators and the Senate communications office to the effect that “some senators do not have sufficient budgets to cover their living expenses” is a slap in the face to Canadians who are struggling. Needless to say, the decision to relax the rules is far off brand with respect to the Trudeau government’s commitment to growing the middle class (not that the Senate cares about the Trudeau government’s brand). And it resonates with many Canadians’ sense that senators are entitled, privileged and unaccountable. Remember Senator Nancy Ruth and her complaints about cold Camembert? This is not far off from that.

Unlike MPs, Senators don’t have to worry about re-election, so perhaps they take comfort in that when they loosen the transparency and accountability rules that govern them. However, to do their jobs as parliamentarians and as policy makers, they need some degree of public trust and legitimacy, just as MPs do. It is hard to imagine that the new and relaxed rules are a step in that direction.

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