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The Canadian Senate Is a Waste of Money

If you’ve read a Canadian newspaper in the last few weeks (and I know you haven’t), you might have seen that the Conservative Party of Canada is facing another scandal—this one being one of the biggest in the seven-year Harper regime. It all revolves...

by Joel Balsam
Jun 3 2013, 3:16pm


Mike Duffy, presumably thinking about ways to cheat taxpayers out of their hard-earned money so he can buy some tasty snacks. via.

If you’ve read a Canadian newspaper in the last few weeks (and I know you haven’t), you might have seen that the Conservative Party of Canada is facing another scandal—this one being one of the biggest in the seven-year Harper regime. It all revolves around Mike Duffy, a senator from teeny tiny Prince Edward Island who claimed 49 days worth of per diems (daily living expenses) meant to be charged to the government when a senator is doing official senator business. The only problem was that Mike wasn't actually in Ottawa, nor was he doing any work.

The thing is, when you’re working so hard at doing pretty much nothing in the senate, you can have a second house close to Parliament with a $22 000 annual allowance and $85 per day for meals and incidental expenses, whatever that could be. Jolly ol’ Duffy racked up a bill of $90,172 when he was balling out at hotels and scarfing down presumably delicious meals to the total of $1,398 in two weeks in Yellowknife, North West Territories during the 2011 election campaign and vacationing in Florida for a full week instead of working in the senate.

“And, so what?” said the Conservatives. “Duffy paid back his $90,172 tab, so we’re all good.”

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s chief of staff Nigel Wright cut Duffy a cheque from his own pocket to pay for the expenses. Now the RCMP is investigating.

When Harper was asked if he knew about Wright and Duffy’s plan, our supreme leader denied it. That would also be understandable if there wasn’t proof in an email written by Duffy that read: “I stayed silent on the orders of the Prime Minister’s Office.”

The thing is, we wouldn’t even know that Duffy violated spending regulations if not for quarterly senator reports that only started in January of 2011. Before then, senators just had to follow the “honour system” and were able to sign off on their own expense claims. It’s just like that Seinfeld episode where they imposed the “honour system” for a masturbation pact—but unlike the Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine—the senators didn’t actually follow it.

Last week 11 new rules were passed that make senators a bit more accountable and eliminated the previous federal protocol of 'just winging it'.

But that isn’t close to enough and they know it.

Way back in 1867, the Canadian senate was developed to enforce “minority interests”, to be a “sober second thought” of “qualified persons” to counteract the sometimes rowdy elected representatives of the House of Commons. 

Currently, the senate is split up just as it was when it was created in 1867 with 105 seats made up of 24 from Quebec, 24 from Ontario, 24 from the maritime provinces, 24 from the West, Newfoundland gets six and each territory gets one. That might have worked when there were only a few pitch-fork wielding farmers out west, but now a province like British Columbia with over four million people gets six seats and New Brunswick with 750,000 people gets ten.

These old guys and gals keep their jobs until they’re 75, which isn’t bad considering it was a job until death before 1965. At 67, Duffy has another eight years left unless he resigns, but what about a guy like Patrick Brazeau who at 36 gets the job for another 39 years costing taxpayers an estimated $7 million? The kicker? Brazeau was accused of sexual assault and discrepancies in living expenses. Even if given jail time, if the sentence is under two years he may get to keep his job with full pay.

Today we have a $92.5 million antiquted institution up from $92.2 million in 2012, who make $135,200 a year, also up from $132,300 in 2012. Add on living expenses for their second residence, travel expenses numbering as high as $310,000 in one year for one senator and bonuses that could range anywhere from $3,100 to $56,000 and you can see why tax payers should be giving a shit about Duffy's creative accounting. 

When asked if members of Canada’s Upper House have used loopholes to their advantage in the past, former senator Thelma Chalifoux told APTN News: “Oh yes, but it was all under the table and it wasn’t publicized.” Um, what?

Do you think the senate is a poorly thought out system that is kinda shitty? So do most Canadians. In a February Angus Reid poll, 67 per cent of respondents support having an elected senate, while two in five don’t think we should have a senate at all.

A number of senate accountability campaigns have sprung up including this one that advocates the very Canadian form of protest known as sending letters to your Member of Parliament.

Sweden, New Zealand, Turkey, Denmark and Australia all do fine without a senate and the US made their senate elected a century ago. Even the British House of Lords, albeit with appointed senators, pays only $460/day per senator, which in Canada for 90 days of work would only be a salary of $45,000—a cool $90,200 less annually per senator.

Harper has frequently insisted on senate reform, so why haven’t we pulled the plug on the damn thing yet? That’s because Canadians would have to amend the constitution in a national referendum with seven out of ten provinces representing over 50% of Canadians agreeing to get rid of it. The government has tried to amend the constitution before and it hasn’t worked out too well, see: Meech Lake Accord (1987), Charlottetown Accord (1992), which both included senate reform. The only time it did work was in 1982, but Quebec hasn’t technically even signed on to that yet.

Another option is to have an elected senate, which some provinces like Alberta already do, but that could create a power struggle between the senate and the House of Commons.

If the government tries to make changes unilaterally the provinces won’t agree. Instead, some may sue like Quebec promised to do. Federalism can really be a bitch sometimes.

Maybe the best bet is a referendum. 73% of Canadians support one on this issue according to the Angus Reid poll.

If the conflicts in the senate of the last few months means anything but a waste of taxpayer dollars, hopefully it will give politicians the slap in the face they need to change this wasteful institution.
 

Follow Joel on Twitter: @JoelBalsam

Previously:

More Canadian politics:

The Canadian Government Misplaced $3.1 Billion

The Facebook Comments Rob Ford’s Staffers Don’t Want You to See

Why is Christie Blatchford Blaming Rehtaeh Parsons?