Editorial: Better people are the answer to Senate shenanigans

Like thousands of voters, you might have no idea who is in the Senate, how they got there and what they do.

But the spate of recent revelations about how certain members of that august chamber appear to have been abusing financial perks has turned the very existence of the senate into a major national issue.

Two former high-profile media personalities appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper are among those being audited.

Senator Mike Duffy made quite a name for himself as an affable and well-connected member of the Ottawa media. His credibility took a heavy hit when it was revealed that he had declared his residence as being in Prince Edward Island, where he was born and has a summer home. Duffy claims he may have made a mistake when he claimed the annual $22,000 housing allowance provided for senators whose primary residence is more than 100 kilometres from Ottawa. Duffy says he will repay the living allowance, without specifying the exact amount. He collected $42,802 during the period the Senate has published expenses.

Senator Pamela Wallin, the former CTV broadcaster, claims to live in Wadena, Sask., where she co-owns a house with her sister and which she says she visits every second week. Yet over the two-year period ending last November, Wallin claimed only $29,423 for expenses to travel between Ottawa and Saskatchewan. Nonetheless, during the period she racked up $321,027 in travel to other parts of Canada and around the globe. Wallin has refused to say whether she has a Saskatchewan health card or where she votes, both of which usually indicate primary residence. Wallin has declined comment on a CTV report she paid back a “substantial” amount of the money she claimed in expenses before meeting with auditors to discuss her travel spending.

Independent Senator Patrick Brazeau, kicked out of the Conservative caucus while he faces charges of assault and sexual assault, and Liberal Senator Mac Harb also are being audited about the housing allowance.

No one has been kicked out of the Senate, which in the British parliamentary tradition is supposed to act as a chamber of sober second thought. It’s hard to expect credible work from individual senators who may appear to be feasting at the trough, or like former senator Andrew Thompson, suspended without pay for chronic absenteeism.

Senators get a salary of $132,000 and don’t have to retire until 75. Brazeau continues to pocket his salary. The Constitution requires that senators reside in the province or territory they represent, but the rules have not been adjusted to take account of the fact senators must live close to or in Ottawa to do their jobs. They should not have to fiddle with the rules to sustain legitimate additional living expenses and the Senate should not have to pay for travel for purely partisan reasons.

Harper has asked the Supreme Court for advice on a Senate Reform Act that would limit senate terms to nine years and propose ways for provinces and territories to hold elections for Senate nominees. In the meantime, we agree with Liberal leadership candidate Justin Trudeau that appointing more qualified people would help improve the Senate’s standing.

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