The past week saw the presentation of a federal and then Ontario budget within two days of each other. Initial attention tended to focus on “the bottom line,” a balanced federal budget and an Ontario budget that at least makes a dent in the large annual deficit that has long been a feature of provincial finances. But let’s take a closer look at both budgets and the factors shaping them.
Thanks to the extensive coverage of the ongoing trial of Senator Mike Duffy, we have become aware of not only the unethical behaviour of one senator, but also the disturbingly lax guidelines, oversight and accountability regime governing all senators. Whatever the court decides concerning Senator Duffy, the Senate itself has already been convicted —in the court of public opinion. The limited public sympathy and support for this institution is now largely gone.
Interest in the fall from grace of a once prominent and popular broadcaster is understandable. But it is unfortunate that the media and the public don’t pay more attention to the continuing decline in Canadian democracy—a subject of far greater importance to all of us than the eventual fate of Senator Duffy. The Senate farce has become an unfortunate distraction, directing attention away from the real, substantial problems with the House of Commons and the health of Canadian democracy.
[This blog was first posted at Samara Canada on April 22, 2015.]
The ongoing trial of Senator Duffy is providing a great deal of information about not only the behaviour of that particular Senator but also about the way in which the Senate operates and the rules and guidelines that it has established over the years. We will leave it to the court to decide whether Senator Duffy has done anything illegal. However, I would argue that we have already heard enough to conclude that both the Senator and the Senate have behaved in immoral or unethical ways.
We are told that the Senate’s rules are either so vague, inconsistent, or non-existent that there really aren’t specific, clearly understandable guidelines about such things as what constitutes official Senate business, what expenses can be appropriately charged by a Senator, and even how to determine one’s primary residence. Let us consider how a moral, ethical person might behave in such a context.
The Senate’s tarnished image took another hit recently as a result of the crackers and camembert controversy created by Senator Nancy Ruth. Apparently annoyed that the Auditor General had questioned her claims for breakfast expenses on occasions when breakfast was included in the cost of her flights, the Senator indicated that the broken crackers and cold camembert offered by the airline were not acceptable fare. That combination is not my idea of a tasty breakfast either, but many feel that if the Senator wished to have an enhanced breakfast experience – in addition to the one already funded by Canadian taxpayers – she should have paid for it herself.
While this story has attracted lots of media coverage, it is a small part of a much larger issue. An ongoing investigation by the Auditor General of expense claims of Senators has apparently turned up inappropriate claims by some 40 members of the Upper Chamber. In at least a few instances, Senators may have improperly billed more than $100,000. The Senate has long operated on an honour system, under which Senators claimed expenses without providing any documentation. It seems obvious that this approach has not been sufficient, at least in the case of a substantial number of Senators.
C. Richard Tindal, Ph.D is a retired Professor of Government. He taught for 30 years at St. Lawrence College, Kingston and was an occasional Visiting Professor at Queen's University. He has also written and consulted extensively about government.