Canada’s fractious senate scandal

The Senate Chamber on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Photo: Marcio Cabral de Moura, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

The Senate Chamber on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Photo: Marcio Cabral de Moura, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Brian Mann blogged last Sunday about the contrast between conservative leadership in Canada and in the U.S., with Canada as an example of pragmatic, center-right political success. That high-level view has validity, particularly for the point Mann was making. But it’s far from the whole picture.

Not surprisingly, Canada has its own landscape of political friction and drama.

Consider the subject of Canada’s Senate – even though few want to. There are historical and cultural reasons why Canada’s upper house is set up as it is – a much less-powerful body than is found in the U.S. system. Among those who actually care, there’s on-going debate if Canada’s Senate still serves a useful function. Those who support reforming or abolishing the Senate face the challenge of constitutional issues too.

A persistent bone of contention is this: Canadian Senators are appointed, not elected. The current pay is $135,200 per year, plus compensation for expenses. (We’ll get back to the topic of “expenses”.) As if that wasn’t hard enough to justify in modern times, the job is guaranteed to age 75. But not to worry, that mandatory retirement is softened by a generous pension.

Holders of cushy jobs would do well to appear grateful and above reproach. Many Senators are hard working, ethical men and women of distinction, dedicated to serving their country and its needs. But, what with human frailty and all, less-savory things can happen too. And even though the Conservative Party runs on law & order platforms, what has emerged over the past year is a big, persistent scandal.

In brief, it appears that at least three Conservative Senators – Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau – claimed housing and other expenses that seem questionable, to put it charitably. (Duffy and Wallin were well-known journalists before being appointed to the Senate. Brazeau was National Chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples.) All were appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a long-time champion of senate reform. A fourth Senator, Liberal Mac Harb, resigned in August after repaying $231,000 in disputed expenses – which he maintains were properly reported and are not significantly different than what many other Senators have claimed.

Ottawa-based Ian Austin summarized the messy business for the New York Times this past Thursday. Here’s a salient section:

The Conservatives first tried to quell the controversy by announcing that Mr. Duffy had voluntarily repaid $90,000 for expenses collected over four years. But that gesture only made matters worse when CTV — coincidentally the network for which Mr. Duffy and Ms. Wallin had worked — reported that Mr. Harper’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright, had given Mr. Duffy a personal check to cover the $90,000 reimbursement. Mr. Wright resigned from Mr. Harper’s staff soon after news of the check became public.

The prime minister, who has a reputation as a micromanager, has denied knowing anything about Mr. Wright’s check before it became public and has offered no explanation for Mr. Wright’s generosity.

Last week, the Conservative-dominated Senate began debate on a motion to suspend Senators Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau without pay or benefits.

You might think improperly claimed housing allowances have no defense, end of story. And that is Harper’s official stance. But hang on a second. Considering that many of the expenses in question were initially sanctioned by party bosses, does the current moral outrage smack of mere posturing, or hypocritical expediency? Since when is it proper procedure to throw sitting Senators out without some form of due process? (RCMP investigations continue and no charges have been filed to date.) And what’s up with secret deals that have to be disavowed if they become public?

The attempt at swift suspension has foundered as Senators Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau fought back, lobbing damaging counter-accusations of their own.

It’s become quite the soap opera. On more than one day last week, the operative phrase in news coverage was “senators sat stunned” as this claim or that was made within chamber walls. At times the different versions sounded like the worst aspects of high school, with assertions of character assassination, arm-twisting, backroom deals, and untrue statements. All in what is supposed to be Canada’s chamber of “sober second thought”.

As recounted by political columnist John Ivison, at least one usually-loyal conservative Senator has broken ranks, speaking against the suspension measure on principle. Don Plett, the founding president of the Conservative Party of Canada:

…said the suspension motion would create a “dangerous precedent” that would in future allow senators to be expelled if they become “an irritant.”

The matter may come to vote in the Senate on Tuesday and what seemed a sure thing only a few days ago has become hard to predict.

Prime Minister Harper has just reached preliminary agreement on a major free trade agreement with the European Union, which is set to be presented in Parliament’s House of Commons on…Tuesday! Adding to the pressure, the Conservative Party’s national convention takes place Oct 31st- Nov 2nd in Calgary. Conservative leaders would very much like to end this scandal and shift the conversation to more flattering accomplishments, but it keeps squirming out of control.

It remains to be seen how much of this damaging scandal will stick, and to whom.

Going back to the opening paragraph: yes, the conservatives have come to power in Canada with more coherent, palatable governance than seems to to be found in U.S. conservative circles of late.

Unfortunately, both countries also have plenty of political scenarios that bewilder and frustrate – with few easy solutions at hand.

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4 Comments on “Canada’s fractious senate scandal”

  1. I think in North America, there’s an inherent suspicion of unelected, unaccountable power. North America was settled by folks dissatisfied with exactly that in Europe.

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  2. Paul says:

    “I think in North America, there’s an inherent suspicion of unelected, unaccountable power.” Thank goodness. And also the elected kind these days. The way folks are elected is suspicious at best. That is something that a Tea Party type or a left wing nut job CAN both agree on these days.

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  3. Pat Nelson says:

    Does it say something about Canada vs the US that their political scandals all seem to be about money and ours are about sex?

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  4. Lucy Martin says:

    It’s true, no one has accused the current prime minister of sexual impropriety. But Prime Minister Harper is in big, big trouble right now – even though the sums at issue are quite small, in the relative scheme of things.

    We are talking Watergate-style “What did he know and when did he know it?” cover-up trouble. The embattled senators are spilling a lot of beans about what happens behind the scenes.

    The he-said, she-said back and forths are too numerous to list here. But ruthless power games and a culture of entitlement are not pretty sights.

    Unlike the U.S. presidency, in the parliamentary system it is possible to replace a sitting prime minister without/before a general election.

    Should the ruling/majority party decide circumstances require a new leader, they can make that change on a party level. The new party leader takes over the remaining “term” of the sitting prime minister.

    Few are saying that will happen at this weekend’s conservative party convention. But the possibility exists.

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