Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Senators playing the system

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If everyone is abusing the system, is it really an abuse? That might well have been the attitude of senators who said they resided in another province while claiming living expenses for homes or apartments in Ottawa.

As we know now, some senators didn't spend enough time in their nominal home provinces to qualify as residents, meaning their real residence was in Ottawa or somewhere close, which makes sense, since that is where they work.

In an interview when the controversy over his expense claims erupted last month, Senator Mike Duffy said very few of his colleagues actually met the requirements that entitle them to claim living expenses for residing outside the provinces they represent.

That's assuming the normal rules for determining residency were used. In most provinces, including Manitoba, a person is considered a resident and entitled to a health card if they live there 183 days a year. The timeline for a driver's licence is about three months.

Senator Pamela Wallin, for example, has steadfastly claimed her home is in Saskatchewan, but she never disclosed if she held a health card or driver's licence in that province. Is she a resident of Saskatchewan, or Ontario?

Well, maybe it shouldn't matter, so long as she and the other senators under scrutiny made frequent trips to the province they represent.

If it didn't matter, however, then Senator Duffy would not have repaid $90,000 in living expenses for his real residence in Ottawa, while masquerading as the senator from Prince Edward Island. His only authentic living expense, arguably, could have been for the cottage he owned on the island and not for his home in Ottawa.

The problem is the rules don't actually define residency. It should be more than a notional or emotional link to a past life. This, of course, is a problem not just for the Senate, but for the House of Commons, too.

The RCMP are probing the Senator Duffy case, while ethics investigators are looking into other incidents of suspect spending in the Senate. The auditor general's authority and expertise are needed, however, to determine what abuses, if any, have occurred, and to clarify the rules.

The disturbing part is that at least some senators knew they were playing the system, and that it needed to be reformed. Not one of them, however -- not one -- said a word.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 5, 2013 A8

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