The decision by Michael Ferguson, the Auditor-General, to review all the travel and living expenses of each and every senator, is welcome. An in-depth audit will determine whether the misdeeds of a few senators are symptomatic of a wider problem and could go a long way in restoring the battered credibility of the upper chamber. At the same time, we would urge Mr. Ferguson to move as quickly as possible; his statement that it could take 18 months to complete the audit is worrisome.
It was the senators themselves who in June invited the Auditor-General to review their expenses, but at the time it wasn't known how far Mr. Ferguson would go. The full audit, revealed late last week, has been announced at a moment when Canadians' confidence in their senators is at a low ebb. Over the past year, the Senate internal economy committee has ruled that four senators – Pamela Wallin, Mike Duffy, Mac Harb and Patrick Brazeau – either claimed living expenses to which they were not entitled, or billed for travel expenses related to non-Senate business, or both. The four have been ordered to pay back hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Equally troubling has been the revelation that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, wrote a $90,000 personal cheque to cover to illegitimate expenses owed by Mr. Duffy. Mr. Wright resigned, and Prime Minister Harper has denied having any prior knowledge of the arrangement.
An audit of every senator's expense claims will establish whether or not there is systematic abuse, or possibly, as Ms. Wallin claims, that the rules about what can and can't be claimed are unclear and senators can make honest mistakes. But Mr. Ferguson should not lose sight of the fact that most senators are scrupulous about filing their expenses properly, and that their reputations should be cleared as quickly as possible.
He should therefore undertake to release findings as his auditors work their way through the ranks of the Senate. He should also limit the audits to random years, especially for senators who have been sitting for a long time, unless questionable claims are found. Some senators have been sitting for more than 20 years – there is no need or time to examine every receipt they ever submitted. Canadians want transparency, and honest senators have a right to it now, not in 2015.