The Senate, reeling in controversy, is greatly worried that respect for the upper chamber is being eroded, again. It is looking seriously at writing rules about which senators should be permitted to file for housing expenses in Ottawa when their main residence is not within reasonable driving distance.
The fact the Senate only now sees cause to write well-defined rules for tapping the public treasury reveals an accountability blind spot. The investigations into expenses claimed by three senators -- P.E.I.'s Mike Duffy, Quebec's Mac Harb and Patrick Brazeau and Saskatchewan's Pamela Wallin, all of whom claim primary residences at least 100 kilometres outside of Ottawa -- should be expedited. Allowances wrongly claimed should be repaid.
That decision won't be so easily made because of the lax wording in the Senate's guidelines of what constitutes a residence, or how primary residence is defined. The Senate now has asked all senators to show proof of residency in their home provinces. That sent Sen. Duffy scrambling for an expedited health insurance card from P.E.I., which turned him down. His cottage there is registered for a special non-resident property tax.
Some senators are having difficulty producing the identification common to residents of provinces -- a driver's licence, proof of registration on voter lists or a health card -- because they essentially live full-time in Ottawa.
That raises a bigger question. The upper chamber is intended to give regional representation to Parliament, the appointees are to be the voices of their provinces.
The Constitution seems fairly clear on the issue: Senators must own land and "shall be resident in the province for which he is appointed." That indicates a senator must be living in his or her province, returning there when not required in Ottawa, rather than vacationing on occasion or holding property as a result of inheritance.
Conservative Sen. David Tkachuk, chairman of internal economy committee, noted nothing specifically dictates that senators must keep their primary residence in their provinces. Indeed, he added, flying "home" frequently would tax the health of some senators.
The Senate now wants to better define the issue of residency, and to write more precise rules to prevent abuse. It's high time, but it might also be too late. Most Canadians know full well what residency means. The fact senators are asking for clarification of what it means to "be resident" may simply show the widening gulf between senators' sense of entitlement and the value Canadians believe they get from a body of patronage appointees costing them $92 million a year.