It really says something about the sheer uselessness of the Canadian Senate that they can’t even keep an accurate track of how much money their members are stealing.
Senator Mac Harb, a former Liberal who
was expelled resigned from his party a couple weeks ago following revelations that he had charged the Senate some $51,282 in undeserved travel and lodging expenses, had his infamy upgraded by several points last week after the Senate’s internal economy committee took a second look at the numbers and determined that no, the figure is actually probably closer to $230,000. And just like that, Senator Harb, previously one of the less offensive characters among the gang of high-profile senators caught with their hands in the fraudulent expense account cookie jar, including Patrick Brazeau ($48,744) Mike Duffy ($90,172.) and Pamela Wallin ($38,000 and counting) is suddenly bumped to first place. What’s particularly charming is that these revised estimates claim Harb actually owes nearly as much in sheer interest ($41,726) on his outstanding ill-gotten claims as he was initially expected to owe overall.
This scandal — the so-called “Senate Expense Account controversy” — continues to loom large in the Canadian papers, and I’ve been on TV a bunch of times attempting to come up with new and clever insights on it. But at the end of the day, it’s really not a very complicated thing, and as the weeks progress it’s getting harder and harder to dredge up any fresh takes. It’s just such an awful, offensive scandal predictably arising from our most awful, offensive political institution. What more can be said?
If you bill your employer for phony expenses or file legit expenses under false pretenses (as Harb did when he dipped into the Senate’s housing and travel allowances for senators who live more than 100 km from parliament, despite his living only 40km away) then you’re basically a thief. I can remember once working at a place where we fired an employee who got caught collecting reimbursements for expenses that were only a couple bucks over the authorized limit — the boss said he was lucky we didn’t call the cops. That’s just how things go in most normal workplaces.
The cops have been called on the rogue Senate gang thankfully, but as I noted in an earlier post, it’s unclear if any jobs will be lost as a result. Canadian senators are appointed by prime ministers for what amount to life terms, and to repeat yet again, they can’t be fired, only impeached following conviction for an indictable offense (which has never happened in Canadian history). Harb will continue to collect his $135,000-a-year salary for the time being, and even if he decides to quit, his ample senatorial pension will surely cushion his fall from grace. But considering he’s recruited a former Supreme Court justice to contest his charges, even that might not be necessary.
Two of the three main political parties in Canada are in favor of Senate reform. The NDP is on an abolishment tour at the moment, while the Tory government of Prime Minister Harper is waiting patiently to hear back from the Supreme Court of Canada on what’s called a “constitutional reference” on Senate reform, which is to say their opinion as to whether or not it would be constitutional for the federal government to unilaterally pass a law forcing Canada’s senators to be subject to elections and term limits.
The Liberal Party, meanwhile, thinks the problem isn’t so much a prime ministerially-appointed senate, but prime ministers who make bad appointments. This was probably an easier case for them to make when the chamber’s most sticky-fingered member appeared to be Conservative Mike Duffy; perhaps a bit harder now that the honor belongs to Harb, a 2003 Jean Chretien appointee. In a similar theme, the long-reigning Liberal parties of Quebec, Ontario, and British Columbia have all consistently refused to undermine the status quo by holding Senate elections (Alberta remains the only province that does) or otherwise press Ottawa to get the ball rolling on any larger cause of reform. And considering the vital role Canada’s provincial governments play in fomenting constitutional change in this country, it’s hard to imagine how anything will get fixed so long as our three biggest regions continue to abdicate their responsibility.
Really, the only conceivable way Canada’s ever going to escape its abusive relationship with its most dysfunctional political institution will be if we get a prime minister (be it Conservative or NDP) who’s willing to put all of the nation’s other business on hold, and just devote 100% of his energy to pitching comprehensive Senate reform all day, every day, for a solid couple of weeks, if not months. The public would have to be whipped into a literal frenzy of anger and outrage over the status quo (which most polls suggest we already are — we just never get a chance to express it), every provincial government would have to be brought under enormous pressure, and there’d have to be some manner of extraordinary national referendum to finally bring definitive closure — whether it was retooling, abolishment, or what — to this tired debate once and for all.
Anything less, well… How’ve the last five years been working out?
How about the last 150?