May 31, 2013

Trouble in Canada's upper house


For decades, there’s been grumbling about the Senate as an unelected, unaccountable, privileged bastion for friends of the party in power.

Sure, it does lots of good work, preparing reports and launching committees into various important issues. Most importantly, its assent is required under the Constitution for any legislation passed by the House of Commons.

But back to Mike Duffy. Recently, he and a few other senators were investigated for misuse of expenses provided by the Senate. The heart of the issue is the principal residence of the expense claimant. In Duffy’s case, he claimed to be a resident of Prince Edward Island, when, in fact, he has been a citizen of Ottawa for decades.

So, busted and all that, but what made matters worse was that information leaked out that the prime minister’s chief of staff had cut Duffy a personal check for $90,000 to cover the amount the senator was required to pay back. This public revelation provoked the chief of staff — the PM’s right-hand man — to resign.

Duffy has since left the Conservative caucus, and earlier this week a Senate committee voted to have the Mounties look into his expenses.

The irony of the Duffy scandal is that in an earlier life Stephen Harper, the man who appointed him and almost half of the current chamber’s 105 seats, had been one of the most outspoken advocates of Senate reform.

Apart from the province of Alberta “electing” a senator back in 1989 in a contrived vote, which the prime minister at the time accepted, little has changed in the quest to have at least a meaningful debate on the future of the Senate.

History and tradition say the Senate can neither be modified significantly nor abolished without going through a full-blown constitutional amendment process involving all 10 provinces. Harper has asked the Supreme Court to examine that question.

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