You can’t just turn off the Senate tap

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It’s a time-honoured tradition among the NDP, dating back to the days of Stanley Knowles, where they try to move a motion every budget cycle to deny funds to the Senate.  Every year it fails, usually after Pat Martin says some comically misleading things about the Senate, and life carries on.  This past Sunday, while CTV’s Question Period host Bob Fife was quizzing James Moore about the issues with Senators Duffy and Wallin, and the revelation that as many as 40 senators may have received letters from the Auditor General about the ongoing expense audit, Fife asked in all seriousness “Isn’t it time for the government to turn off the money tap to the red chamber?”

And then my head exploded.

There were so many things wrong in that single question that it’s hard to enumerate them.  For starters, the Senate is not a government department.  It’s an independent chamber of parliament, and we have a bicameral legislature for good reason – the Commons gets stuff wrong, and it’s good to have a reviewing body that can catch errors before they become law.  The bigger and more important aspect is that the Senate acts as a check on the power of the government.  It’s why they have the kind of institutional independence built into the system that they do – so that they can’t be punished by the government if they don’t let it have its way, and given that the Senate knows that they don’t have a democratic mandate, it’s usually in very rare and important cases where this is an issue.  Granted, we have been in a period of a more pliant Senate than in other times past, but that is also a function of how the current Prime Minister has been mishandling the appointment process, and most of those senators will get more independent over time.  It’s already happening in a number of cases.

Depriving the Senate of funds, as much as some people may think it’s a grand idea, is unfathomably boneheaded.  It has work to do.  Constitutionally, bills can’t pass or become law if it doesn’t pass the Senate, and if you starve the Senate of funds, that legislation won’t go anywhere.  And it’s not enough to try and simply deny senators of their salaries or expenses, but it’s a drastic move that would deny the whole machinery of the Senate – clerks, translators, guards, administrators – of their livelihoods as well, which would really slow things down.  A while ago, certain NDP MPs made the suggestion that senators simply work for free out of their civic obligation, never once volunteering to work for free themselves, or realising that the only people in a position to be able to work for free on that kind of basis would be the wealthiest of Canadians – surely not the kinds of people that they would want to be exclusively doing this kind of necessary parliamentary work.

Oh, but it’s costly!  Except that it’s not.  Senators provide far better value-for-money than MPs on a per capita basis, and the savings are achieved further down the line, be it in catching major errors in legislation before they would have to be challenged in the courts, or in the kind of high-quality non-partisan reports that they produce, of equal or better quality than those done by royal commissions, and at a fraction of the cost.  It’s parliament’s built-in think tank, full of accomplished Canadians, and it already comes to us at a fixed, reasonable price.

None of this is to say that there haven’t been problems, because we can clearly see from Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau, to name three, that there have been abuses of the system.  It’s possible that spending rules have been lax, but we should also be mindful of the difference between abuse and between flexibility.  After all, the role of a senator is fraught and a complex question because you have accomplished people who want to take on policy areas and champion them in various ways around the country.  It’s why there is great concern that the Auditor General will try and force a narrow definition of that role as part of his audit.

Let’s also not forget that this audit process is becoming problematic in and of itself, with Senators being asked to turn over their personal diaries, to justify why their spouse travelled with them legitimately, or insisting that they should have had the lunch provided for them at a committee meeting rather than going out for a different one.  The fact that 40 senators may have received letters is also not indicative of guilt, as Fife seems to be implying – requests for more information are not accusations of wrongdoing, particularly when there are legitimate differences of opinion regarding what constitutes the duty of a senator.

The other reason why accusations of abuse should not be a justification to turn off the “money taps” is that it’s a terribly hypocritical proposition.  Senators have long been far more transparent about their expenses, and even their attendance, than MPs have been.  We’re also seeing some pretty significant issues of abuse of expenses on the Commons side, particularly when you get to issues about NDP mailings that broke the rules, or the satellite offices.  It’s only a couple of years ago that a number of MPs were found to have been in violation of rules around their housing expenses, so to claim that this is somehow unique to the “entitled” Senate is simply false.

Were the Auditor General to turn his attention to the Commons, we can be sure that there would be plenty of cases of broken rules and likely outright abuse to be found there as well, just as we saw when the provincial Auditor General was turned loose on MLAs in Nova Scotia, or with the expense scandals in the UK.  Singling out the Senate may sound like a politically saleable idea, but it’s one that comes with long-term consequences that will come around to bite us in the end.

 

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Follow Dale Smith on twitter: @journo_dale

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