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Senator sending wrong messages to the masses

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OTTAWA -- Sen. Pamela Wallin is still waiting for results of an independent audit examining the validity of her expense claims while in the Senate.

She is one of four senators whose spending claims are under scrutiny in a Senate scandal that has many Canadians questioning the purpose of the Senate in Canadian democracy, but the only one audit firm Deloitte has yet to finish investigating.

Wallin has already paid back $38,000 in travel expenses she says she accidentally submitted to the Senate, even though it was for travel for the various corporate boards she sits on. She called it an honest paperwork mistake and apologized for not paying closer attention to the details.

But last week it was made public Wallin's commitment to detail on her expense claims is as lax as her commitment to democracy and civic duty.

The Globe and Mail obtained a copy of a letter Wallin wrote to the Senate committee looking into her expense claims, answering questions about where she lives, pays taxes and votes.

They were trying to determine if Wallin and other senators met certain residency requirements in the province they are supposed to represent.

Most stunning in the letter is Wallin told the committee she couldn't say where she had voted because she hadn't done so.

"I have not been able to vote in the last federal, provincial or municipal elections due to the travel and work schedule," the letter reads.

A high-profile senator, well-known in this country after decades as a national television journalist and then a diplomat, and this is the example she sets? She was just too busy. Not once, not twice, but three times.

It might almost be ironic if it weren't so disappointing Wallin had time to fly around and campaign for the Conservatives during the federal election campaign but didn't have time to vote.

Voter turnout in Canada is dismal. In 2011, 61 per cent of registered voters cast a ballot.

In Saskatchewan, the province Wallin represents in the Senate, turnout in the last provincial election on Nov. 7, 2011, was 66 per cent. That's better than most other provinces but still unacceptably low.

Municipally, Wallin should have voted in Wadena, a town of 1,300 east of Saskatoon where she was born and raised and now claims as her home. She left Saskatchewan in the late 1970s, living in Ottawa, Toronto and New York City. In 2009, she was appointed to the Senate to represent Saskatchewan despite the fact she hadn't actually lived there in more than three decades.

It's worth noting whatever Wallin was busy with during both the last Saskatchewan and federal elections, it wasn't Senate business. The Senate does not sit during a federal election, and on Nov. 7, 2011, the date of the Saskatchewan election, the Senate was on a break week.

The Senate was sitting on Oct. 24, 2012 when residents of Wadena voted in their current mayor and council, so she might possibly get a pass on that one. But Saskatchewan law requires every municipality to provide at least one advance polling day.

Provincially and federally, both advance voting and mail-in ballots are allowed.

Apparently, Wallin was so busy campaigning, or maybe it was with her various business commitments to corporate boards and public-speaking engagements, she couldn't be bothered to find out how and where she could vote if she couldn't be there in person on election day.

If a high-profile senator can't be bothered to vote, it's no wonder voter turnout continues to plunge.

Ilona Dougherty, executive director of Apathy is Boring, a group trying to improve civic engagement in Canada, said it was certainly strange somebody who is part of our democratic system apparently didn't know about an absentee ballot.

"It's either a lack of education or a lack of interest," said Dougherty. She also said it suggests a lack of respect for the position Wallin is in and doesn't send the right message to Canadians about the importance of voting.

Canada's Senate is already laden with accusations it is undemocratic, since it is unelected and seemingly unaccountable to the people it represents. Having a well-known senator play right into that idea by not bothering to vote simply adds fuel to the fire.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 2, 2013 A7

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