December 5, 2013 Sections
Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
The Senate's rush to punish three senators who abused their expense accounts is not only unseemly, it's beneath an institution whose very purpose is to serve as a house of sober second thought.
In fact, it's difficult not to interpret the hurried attempt at justice by the Senate's Conservative majority as just a tawdry political manoeuvre to end the political controversy while handing Prime Minister Stephen Harper a victory for this weekend's Conservative party convention in Calgary.
Auditors found Conservative senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau abused their expense privileges, but the three cases are not identical and even a first-year law student would agree a single sentence of suspension for up to two years without pay may not be appropriate in each case.
The penalty should be based on the facts, but most defendants are usually given a chance to present a defence before a verdict and sentence is delivered.
In this case, however, the three disgraced senators have not had a formal opportunity to present their cases in the Senate, although they have protested their innocence to the media. Each claims the rules are unclear and invite unintended abuse, particularly the requirement that a senator live in the province for which they are appointed.
Ms. Wallin also says her frequent flying habits were related to valid Senate business, even if it often appeared she was using taxpayers' money for other business or personal interests.
As a matter of fair process, the Senate should convene a special committee to hear the three senators argue their cases. That's just basic justice.
Along with the Senate deliberations, Canadians may get answers from other reviews. An RCMP investigation is pending and if criminal fraud is discovered, the criminal courts would dispense the appropriate justice. And the auditor general is investigating the expenses of all 105 senators, which could expose a pattern of abuse, or confusion, depending on your point of view. It might be that the rules are so weak, that abuse was inevitable in many cases.
It is ironic Conservative senators have been told not to bill the red chamber for their trip to Calgary because of the bad optics. Senators are entitled to bill for some partisan activities because it is considered part of the job, but, again, the rules are unclear, which highlights the general problem of determining guilt in a system where so many rules are vague and open to interpretation.
The Senate obviously has a lot bigger mess to clean up than the expenses of a few beleaguered colleagues.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 31, 2013 A14