The Constitution of Canada is an obtuse and badly-written document, but at least one clause seems to be clear enough. When the prime minister goes around picking senators to represent Canada’s 10 provinces, declares Article IV, sec. 23 (5), they “shall be resident in the Province for which he is appointed.”
A few clauses later, however, things begin to get a bit tricky. A “Senator shall not be deemed to have ceased to be qualified in respect of Residence by reason only of his residing at the Seat of the Government of Canada while holding an Office under that Government requiring his Presence there,” clarifies 31 (5). Translated into 21st century English, the Constitution is clarifying that it’s okay if a senator from, say, Vancouver elects to purchase a condo in Ottawa rather than rack up enormous plane bills flying back-and-forth every time there’s a vote.
But despite this constitutional concession, some Senators still felt commuting was a ritual too important to concede. They need to visit their constituents and so forth, even though they don’t actually have any constituents on account of the fact that no one ever elected them. (Indeed, I question if any Canadian, anywhere, has ever even met his or her senator before. I’m not even being facetious — post in the comments if you have, because I’m genuinely curious about the context).
Anyhow, in 1985 the Senate stuck some amendments on the Parliament of Canada Act allowing the government to front “reasonable travel and living expenses” of any senator patriotic enough to maintain a “primary residence” in whatever far-away province they were appointed to represent. Many senators quickly opted-in.
There was no monitoring or enforcement to ensure senators were living where they said they were, or even a hard and fast definition of what precisely constituted a “primary residence” (as opposed to some other kind) in the first place. There was only the honour system, but that was okay since Canadian senators are all valiant men of honour. And maintaining that consistent standard of honour is why they can never be elected, see.
Late last year some journalists began to suspect the system was being abused. Near as I can tell, this was mostly the result of Prime Minister Harper’s 2008 decision to appoint noted Ottawa journalist Mike Duffy to the Senate. Duffy, who was picked to represent the tiny province of Prince Edward Island, quickly opted into the living-outside-of-Ottawa slush fund, claiming more than $33,000 in absentee living allowances, which naturally caused all his journalist buddies in the capital region to call BS. Nice try, Duffy, but we all see you at the supermarket, they said.
In February Duffy fessed up, claiming he had found the Senate’s demand he accurately state which which province he lives in “confusing,” and promptly paid back all his ill-obtained allowances (though breaking news informs us he was only able to do this via a loan secured from the Prime Minister’s chief of staff).
The Duffy scandal (followed by a similar controversy about the living circumstances of Liberal senator Marc Harb, plus perennial tabloid darling, Senator Patrick Brazeau) prompted the Senate to stage a comprehensive audit of all contentious senatorial residency claims, and the report came back this week.
The findings? The three embattled senators had pocketed a combined total of over $200,000 in illegitimate out-of-province fees since being appointed. According to Kelly McParland in the National Post, “none of the three spent even a third of their time in the home they claimed as their main residence,” with Senator Brazeau in particular only spending 10% of the last year in his Quebec “home.”
Following the report’s release, Senator Harb was expelled from — er “quit,” Liberal Party — and has, along with Brazeau pledged to fight the charges on Duffianian grounds of confusion. The RCMP now says it will get involved, as well it should, since it’s hard to imagine any other Canadian claiming tens of thousands of dollars of work expenses on false pretenses without the cops getting involved.
But if the legal destiny of the men remains unclear, one thing that decidedly ain’t is the senators’ political futures. Unless they choose to freely resign out of shame, there’s almost no way they can be removed from office. The Prime Minister has no power to fire them, and under the rules of the Constitution, the Senate itself can only vote to expel if they get convicted of an “infamous crime,” which subsequent legislation has clarified to mean an indictable offense, as in, something extremely serious like murder or treason. As opposed to mere embezzlement.
At best, the Senate could do to Duffy and Harb what it already did to Senator Brazeau when he was arrested for pushing his girlfriend down the stairs (a non-indictable offense) last winter — namely, grant him a paid leave of absence for harming the “dignity and reputation of the Senate and public trust and confidence in Parliament.”
Yeah, that’ll do it.