For almost a year now, the Canadian Senate has been the scene of extraordinary controversy and scandal. There are two basic issues at the root of it all. First, there is the possibility that some Senators do not live in the provinces that they represent in the Upper Chamber. If this is the case, it is problematic because the Constitution states very clearly that a senator "shall be resident in the Province for which he is appointed." This is not a requirement for Members of Parliament – they can live in one riding and represent another – but the Senate was styled as a body of regional representation, so the residency requirements for Senators are different.
Senators Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin have faced allegations that their true home province is Ontario rather than Prince Edward Island and Saskatchewan, respectively, and both have denied this. Senator Duffy has insisted all along that his province of primary residence is PEI despite owning a house in Kanata, Ont., for years. But, media reports that he uses an Ontario health card (for which primary residency in Ontario is a requirement) have cast doubt on his interpretation of "primary residence."
The second issue at the heart of the Senate scandal is the submission of allegedly inappropriate housing and travel claims. Senators Duffy and Wallin, plus Senators Patrick Brazeau of Quebec and Mac Harb of Ontario, have been ordered to repay the Senate for inappropriate claims. Back in August, Mr. Harb repaid $231,000 in expenses and then retired immediately, so he is no longer in the public eye. Ms. Wallin has repaid well over $100,000 and the Senate is garnishing some of Mr. Brazeau's wages in order to reclaim the $49,000 that he's been ordered to repay.
Mr. Duffy repaid approximately $90,000, and it is the circumstances of his repayment that seem to have made the most headlines. A former senior official from the Prime Minister's Office, former chief of staff Nigel Wright, has admitted to giving Senator Duffy a personal cheque to cover his debt to the Senate in its entirety.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper insists that he was not part of this arrangement and Mr. Wright has corroborated Mr. Harper's version of events. Mr. Duffy has said that he met with Mr. Harper and Mr. Wright on the matter of the $90,000, but has not specified whether Mr. Harper knew of the cheque from Mr. Wright. In his address to the Senate this week, Mr. Duffy said that the PMO pressured him to repay what he owed, for the perception of wrongdoing was offending the Conservative "base."
Now, the three Senators at the centre of it all – Brazeau, Duffy and Wallin – face the threat of suspension from the Upper Chamber without pay. The government side moved the motion to suspend the three Senators for "gross negligence" with regard to their expenses and the motion is up for debate in the Senate this week. While suspension from the Senate is not unprecedented, it is extremely rare and, obviously, very serious. Some Senators, including Hugh Segal, have expressed the concern that the Senate's handling of the whole affair has not been satisfactory and to suspend them now would be to "sentence" them without due process.
These issues have been at the top of news reports for months, with new details, questions, and allegations coming to light all the way through. In the midst of all of this information, what should Canadians be focusing on? Why is this important?
For one thing, it is against the law to submit fraudulent expense claims. It has been reported that the RCMP are investigating the Senators' expenses with regard to the possibility of fraud and breach of trust. This is serious business, to say the least, and the implications are legal – not just political.
Perhaps one of the most frustrating things about this case is that, even though there are no TV cameras allowed in the Senate, Canadians have been spectators this whole time and remain so. The people at the centre of this scandal – Brazeau, Duffy, Wallin, and Wright – are all appointed officials, not elected ones, so Canadians have no direct mechanism by which to hold them to account. If MPs rather than Senators were involved (not that this would be better!), Canadians would have the opportunity to question them directly and use their vote to hold them to account come election time. But Senators do not answer to Canadians, nor do prime ministerial appointees like Nigel Wright.
What these four people have in common is that the Prime Minister appointed them. But they are appointees of a very different nature. Senators are supposed to be independent – their appointment is protected till mandatory retirement at age 75 – so it is shocking to hear Mr. Duffy accusing the PMO of trying to intimidate him. These offices are to be kept separate from one another. The fact that the prime minister appoints Senators does not mean that Senators serve at his pleasure.
However, political appointees in the PMO do serve at pleasure and, as the only elected representative in the PMO, the Prime Minister must answer for the actions of his appointees. This is what ministerial responsibility means in a parliamentary system like ours. It's our only way of holding political appointees accountable – indirectly through the ministers who appoint them. Mr. Harper claims that he was not aware of Mr. Wright's payment to Senator Duffy but, even if this is the case, it is his job to know.
This story will not go away any time soon. While we've been bombarded with data, we have more questions than answers. Hopefully, this won't be the case forever.
Lori Turnbull is an associate professor of political science at Dalhousie University in Halifax.