Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](,dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Story continues below advertisement

"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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies