The Canadian Senate set a precedent Tuesday when its ethics committee recommended that one of its members, Don Meredith, be expelled from the upper house. The members now appear to be poised to set that precedent in stone by voting in favour of it, a move that could come as early as next week.
In a perfect world, Mr. Meredith would resign. He has disgraced himself and the Senate by using his office to initiate a sexual affair with a teenager. His conscience, however, apparently does not dictate that he go voluntarily.
So what's the option? Until now, it has been virtually impossible to remove even the most venal senator from office. Mr. Meredith hasn't been convicted of a crime, changed citizenship, gone bankrupt or hired himself out to a foreign government – the standards for expulsion laid out in the Constitution.
The Senate upended those inadequate criteria last June when, in response to a raft of scandals, it established a code of ethics. The new rules require senators to "uphold the highest standards of dignity inherent to the position of senator," and not to act "in a way that could reflect adversely on the position of senator or the institution of the Senate."
It makes sense to have such a code, and to enforce it, because of the unique position of senators. They can't be thrown out by voters. It's a very different story in the House of Commons. Barring exceptional circumstances – like that of MP Fred Rose, who was expelled from Parliament after being sentenced to six years in prison for spying for the Soviet Union – the only people who should get to remove an MP from his or her seat are the voters.
Senators, though, are a bizarre combination of parliamentarian and dictator. They are appointed to sit until age 75 – which preserves their (theoretical) independence. But there are no voters who can throw the bad apples out of office, no matter how egregiously they misbehave.
The Senate appears to have landed on a reasonable solution for holding members accountable: set an ethical code, investigate alleged violations, and, if expulsion is recommended, take it to a vote. It might not be perfect, but few would argue that something like this wasn't necessary.
The question now is, how will senators handle future cases? Have they set a precedent that is limited to Mr. Meredith's salacious indiscretions, or does it extend to senators who deliberately fudge their generous expense claims – a sin that is far more common, and which also reflects terribly on the institution?
The fate of the next senator caught padding his or her expenses is going to be interesting.