Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Attendance review not a priority

Staff studies rules months after issue angered public

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OTTAWA -- A review of the rules for Senate attendance appears to be on the back burner, six months after the Conservatives promised action on absenteeism.

The issue arose last July after it was made public the youngest senator -- Conservative Patrick Brazeau -- had the worst attendance of the parliamentary session, missing both committee meetings and chamber sittings.

The committee on internal economy -- the same one auditing housing allowances -- was asked to take on the study at the request of Conservative Senate Leader Marjory LeBreton.

A Senate spokeswoman said committee staff has been busy reviewing rules, policies, records and media reports. But she said they haven't reported back to the senators, and there is no time frame for their report.

The committee chairman also suggested the attendance-rule review is not a high priority. "I have other things on my mind. ... That is the least of my issues," David Tkachuk said last week.

The Senate voted to place Brazeau on a leave of absence Tuesday after he was charged last week with assault and sexual assault in Gatineau, Que.

Liberal Sen. Roméo Dallaire has since surpassed Brazeau for the highest absenteeism, having exhausted all 21 of his free leave days, set aside "primarily" for family illnesses, funerals and religious holidays.

Public business outside the chamber and sick days do not eat into the 21 leave days allowed each parliamentary session. The Senate sat 132 days between June 2011 and December 2012.

Dallaire said he fully expects $250 will be deducted from his next pay because he spent his 22nd day away from the Senate at the United Nations, advising on how troops should cope with child soldiers in Mali. The former army lieutenant general has spent the other days doing research with Halifax's Dalhousie University on child soldiers, delivering speeches and travelling to Africa. He said he's careful about not declaring that Senate business.

"If I'm doing lieutenant general stuff, which is conflict resolution, leadership, child soldiers, that's outside," said Dallaire. "I've been hedging my bets, and if I'm in doubt, the hell with it, I'll take a day. That's the way they taught us (at National Defence). I'm just using that day."

Brazeau and Liberal Serge Joyal are a close second to Dallaire, each having missed 19 days out of 21.

Brazeau had chalked up his absences last year to personal matters. Joyal said he has been attending conferences in France with the organization Institut des Ameriques and working on a book about Senate reform and the Constitution.

Other senators who have used up a proportion of their leave bank include Liberal Paul Massicotte (16 days) and Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointees Pamela Wallin, David Braley and Bert Brown (each 15 days).

Brown, who has had high attendance in the past, has been helping his wife through a serious illness.

"I know being present in the chamber is important to him," said assistant John Watson. "It's been a traumatic session for him."

Wallin's office noted the days are "primarily" for family illnesses, funerals and religious holidays. "Sen. Wallin has been dealing with several family issues and therefore has broken no rules. Absence -- up to a certain limit -- is permitted," said her assistant Mark Fisher.

"To suggest these absences amount to poor attendance, or to compare among senators as to who has been more or less absent within the permitted number of days, does not reflect the spirit of the policy which allows for personal leave."

Last year, LeBreton made it clear she wanted more scrutiny of the rationale given for absences. Senators are currently not required to specify why they are taking a leave day.

"It's just not enough to say personal circumstances; there should be reasons given," LeBreton said last summer.

Massicotte's office said in an email his absences were for personal reasons and had no other comment.

Braley's office did not respond.

Many senators did not use a single leave day 132 days (as of December) into the session. They are Tories Diane Bellemare, Claude Carignan, Tobias Enverga, Doug Finley, Beth Marshall, Don Meredith, Thanh Hai Ngo, Judith Seidman and John Wallace; Liberals Catherine Callbeck, Percy Downe, Jim Munson, Pierrette Ringuette and Claudette Tardif; and independent Anne Cools.

The accessibility of the Senate attendance register itself was supposed to be part of the committee's study. The register is located at a downtown Ottawa office. If a member of the public wants to view it, they must travel to that location during business hours.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 14, 2013 A8

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