The Senate old guard and newly appointed senators are embroiled in a dispute over whether to allow independent oversight of their spending.
The Senate committee on rules, procedures and the rights of Parliament failed to reach agreement on Tuesday on whether to appoint outside experts to a new Senate audit and oversight committee that would examine the spending of senators and the upper chamber’s $100-million annual budget.
Members of the Independent Senators Group (ISG) – most of whom were appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – are pushing for independent oversight, while Conservative and Liberal senators argued that the rules do not allow for non-senators to sit on Senate committees unless instructed by the chamber itself.
ISG senator and former Manitoba judge Murray Sinclair argued that the Red Chamber would benefit from having people with audit experience on a Senate oversight committee. This type of oversight might have prevented the Senate expense claims scandal of 2012, he told the committee.
The scandal led the Senate to call in Auditor-General Michael Ferguson, who examined expense claims made by 116 senators and former senators over a two-year period. In a June, 2015 report, the Auditor-General alleged 30 senators' claims were inappropriate. He recommended an independent oversight body to prevent future spending abuses.
“This experience has shown that the Senate has suffered from not having outside eyes on the work of the Senate itself,” said Mr. Sinclair, who urged the committee to create an independent body to oversee their expenses.
At Tuesday’s hearings, Liberal Senator Serge Joyal criticized the 2015 auditor-generals’ report, saying it cost $23-million and led to the recovery of only $186,000 of inappropriate expenses.
Conservative Senator David Wells argued that there was no need for outsiders on a Senate audit committee. He suggested that an internal auditor from the Senate bureaucracy and an outside auditor from a respected firm would be sufficient to help guide a five member oversight committee of senators. Committee meetings would be held in public, he said.
ISG Senator Frances Lankin said those two outsiders would not be truly independent and her colleague Senator Marc Gold said it is important for unelected senators to assure the public that they have learned the lessons of the past.
“Canadians are understandably skeptical of the Senate and we need to rebuild that trust,” Mr. Gold said. “I not sure that [a senators-only committee] is enough to satisfy the reasonable outsider who is looking at the Senate and are saying they really still are trying to run this like a closed shop.”
Conservative Senator Denise Batters would not say whether she would support the kind of independent Senate oversight as proposed by ISG senators, who now form the largest block in the upper chamber with 54 members.
“The rules don’t provide for it right now,” she said, adding that the old guard had done a lot of work over the past few years to ensure there was “transparency and accountability in every respect of the Senate.” For example, she noted senators expenses are now posted online.
Senator Peter Harder, the Government Leader in the upper house, backs the ISG effort for outsider oversight. Mr. Harder said the committee should include senators as well as former judges and experts in corporate governance and public institutions.
“Those who argue against the inclusion of outside experts claim that their presence would unduly interfere with the Senate’s parliamentary privilege as a self-governing body. But this attitude sends the message to Canadians that senators are more concerned with their privileges than with gaining public trust," Mr. Harder wrote in the November edition of Policy Options magazine.
Conservative Senator Leo Housakos, who chairs the committee, said he has no qualms about having outsiders, but he argued that it up to the Senate chamber as whole to vote for this measure.
He proposed that the committee approve a senators-only audit committee and then ask the Senate chamber whether independent experts should be added. Mr. Housakos’s motion will be voted on next week.