The Auditor-General of Canada used a very large hammer to strike some flies in his investigation of senators' expenses.
Five lead auditors plus "many other staff within the Office of the Auditor-General of Canada" examined more than 80,000 expense items for 116 past and current senators over a two-year period, from 2011 to 2013.
Headline-grabbing indiscretions and mistakes notwithstanding, the haul of the allegedly guilty in the A-G's report is rather small. This conforms to a long pattern of A-G reports going back many years on various issues: They are astringent with praise and long with condemnation.
Thirty of the 116 senators were found to have done something possibly wrong or something that might warrant further inquiry.
Nine of the 30, Auditor-General Michael Ferguson recommended, should have files referred to the police. Upon examination of the incomplete information made public by the A-G and the senators' responses, the sums at issue were not large and the senators' prima facie explanations not implausible.
After the Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, Mac Harb and Patrick Brazeau affairs that have led to RCMP investigations, charges or actual court cases into these senators' activities, the unsuspecting might have expected a cesspool of dirty deeds or outright corruption in an institution Canadians love to mock, kick or hate.
It turns out the Senate's rules were lax and unclear, although teams of auditors do often demand documentation and details that might escape even the most resolute keeper of files.
Be that as it may, "some" (this vague phrase recurs frequently in the report) senators did not detail their travel and the reasons for it with sufficient clarity. And because senators have monitored themselves, oversight was inadequate. Fair enough. The A-G's recommendations for external oversight and new reporting mechanisms should help.
This A-G's report, however read, will put another log on the fires surrounding the Senate, a body that represents the worst mistake of the original Confederation arrangements. In a federation, there should have been some sort of upper house of the provincial governments or a body elected by the people.
Some Fathers of Confederation so argued at the conferences that created the constitutional framework for Canada. Indeed, given the relative powerlessness of the Senate, and the ridicule it now invites, it is hard to explain why the Senate – its configuration and powers – took up more time at the formative Charlottetown conference that drew up Canada's constitutional arrangements than any other issue.
"Presentism" – the condemning of historical figures for not acting then as we would want them to act today – criticizes those who argued for an appointed Senate. Those preferring appointments were Victorian gentlemen who rather feared mob rule. They looked south, and saw what role the Senate had played in the breakup and civil war of the United States. And they admired Britain, which had given itself the House of Lords.
So they tried imperfectly to marry federal principles to the British system. The Canadian Senate would be appointed, but senators would come from, and be expected to represent, the interests of their provinces.
From the beginning, partisan considerations overwhelmed the regional element. Senators would first and foremost be Liberals or Conservatives, and then "representatives" of a province, except that they could not truly be "representatives" in the full sense of the word because they lacked democratic legitimacy.
The Senate kept operating with those contradictions, and more or less still does. Where the fine lines of distinction reside between "Senate business" and party affairs is never defined. National election campaigns, in whole or in part, have been run by senators from their offices. Between elections, "some" (that word again) of them do party work beyond how they vote and what they say in the Senate.
With a few exceptions (lowering the retirement age, for example), the Senate has resisted all attempts to reform or abolish it. The Supreme Court has ruled that abolition would require unanimous consent of the federal and provincial governments, an event almost beyond human imagination.
This implausible scenario has not stopped demands for abolition, as from today's New Democratic Party, or tortured non-solutions for national referendums to get rid of the Senate.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has ruled that Liberal appointees to the chamber are no longer Liberals. Prime Minister Stephen Harper refuses to fill dozens of seats, having been foiled in his attempt to create an elected chamber.
As always, nobody likes the Senate, but no consensus remotely exists about what should be done.