The Senate should tread carefully this week when it debates and then votes on motions to suspend without pay three members who made ineligible expense claims. These motions are drastic and precedent-setting, but the rules of the largely self-governing Senate allow them, and may even demand them. The Senate is the best place to address a mess that originated in the Senate. Had it not prevaricated so long, things would not have come to this.
Facing lengthy stays in the penalty box are Pamela Wallin, Mike Duffy and Patrick Brazeau. Ms. Wallin has paid back more than $140,000 in unwarranted expenses and the Senate has referred her case to the RCMP. Mr. Duffy is under investigation by the RCMP and has repaid more than $90,000. Mr. Brazeau was ordered to repay almost $49,000 and is currently suspended from the Senate with pay because he has been charged in an unrelated sexual assault case.
The three separate motions to suspend the senators were brought by Government Senate leader Claude Carignan and refer to "the gross mismanagement of parliamentary resources." The goal, according to the motions, is to "protect the dignity and reputation of the Senate and public trust and confidence in Parliament." The suspensions are for an indefinite period but, under the rules, can run no longer than the current session of Parliament – which is up in 2015.
There are good reasons for limiting the ability of either House of Parliament to suspend members who have not been convicted of an indictable offence – or, in this case, even charged with a crime related to the reason for their suspension. It would be harmful to democracy, were members able to too easily sideline a fellow member. The highest possible bar for such an action is required.
The bar appears to be met here. In Canada, only one senator has ever been suspended without pay, the absentee Liberal senator Andrew Thompson in 1998. Mr. Thompson, caught dead to rights, resigned his seat shortly thereafter. In the United Kingdom, three members of the House of Lords were suspended in 2010 over expense-claim improprieties, and slapped by their collegues with suspensions ranging from a year and half to four months.
The suspension of three Canadian senators at once would be a huge precedent. Senators from both parties should therefore think carefully about what they are doing, and why. If the goal is, as its Senate Leader claims, to "protect the dignity and reputation of the Senate and public trust and confidence in Parliament," there are other steps that should also be taken: providing clarity on the question of residency for senators, for example, and posting detailed expenses of all parliamentarians, MPs included, online. The suspension of a member of Parliament should be an exceptionally unusual occurence. It should be a rare and difficult thing. But sometimes even difficult things must be done.