Opinion-Policy Nexus

Published Feb. 25, 2013 in The Waterloo Region Record.

The Senate of Canada, that venerable and mostly irrelevant appendage, is much in the news of late.

Teapot tempests over residency rules and senators’ travel and living expenses are impeding a more important debate: do we need a senate and, if so, what do we want it to do?

I frankly don’t care where Senator Mike Duffy, a broadcast journalist before he went over to the dark side, calls home. He may be a resident of Prince Edward Island where he was born and where he keeps a summer cottage (at Cavendish). Or it may be Ontario where he has lived for 40-odd years, where he has a home (on the outskirts of Ottawa), where he pay taxes and has his driver’s licence, health card and his cardiologist (he has had serious heart problems).

Duffy regards himself as an Islander. Prime Minister Stephen Harper accepted him as such when he appointed him to represent P.E.I. (The Constitution requires senators to own $4,000 in “real property” in the province they represent. Duffy had that in P.E.I. as well as is in Ontario.)

He came a cropper when it was revealed it had claimed his P.E.I. cottage as his principal residence and had collected $42,000-odd in an allowance for a secondary residence in Ottawa. It is clear Ottawa was, and is, his principal residence. Although it is also clear he should not have claimed the allowance — he says he will repay the money — I do have some sympathy.

What would have happened if he had declared his principal residence to be in Ontario? He could have avoided the living-allowance controversy — but he would have had to resign from the Senate because the Constitution, adopted 146 years ago, requires senators to “be resident in the province” for which they are appointed.

The residency rules make no sense the days. They are vestiges of an era when senators came to Ottawa once or twice a year by train, stayed in the capital until the session ended, then got on the train to go home again. Principal residence wasn’t an issue.

These days, a senator like Duffy can get on a plane in Charlottetown or Ottawa in morning, fly to the other place (working his smartphone as he goes), spend the day tending to public business, then fly back at the end of the day. It doesn’t matter where he calls his principal residence.

The Constitution is an impediment to modernization of many procedures, in the Senate and elsewhere. Senate reform is not going to happen any time soon, though. In the interval, a more flexible approach by the government and the Senate would let senators like Duffy and others choose the place they want to call home.

The case of Saskatchewan Senator Pamela Wallin is different. I have known Pam for years, and I have no idea where she lives. I don’t even know how to figure that out. She owns a condo in Toronto, which is rented out. She owns another condo in New York, which may or may not be rented. Her hometown is Wadena, Sask., where she is co-owner (with her sister) of a house in town; she also has a cottage at Fishing Lake outside town.

Among her several residential options, Wallin chooses the house in Wadena as her principal residence. That seems fair enough. Instead of maintaining a second home in Ottawa, she stays in a hotel there. Her hotel expenses are covered by the Senate.

Her travel costs between Ottawa and Wadena are not excessive. But she claimed a whopping $321,027 for “other” travel in Canada and beyond in a two-year period. Some of that would be travel on behalf of the Conservative party because Wallin is in demand as a speaker at fundraisers.

The issue to my mind is not how much Wallin spends on party-related travel. It is why the Tory party is not picking up those bills instead of sticking the taxpayer with them.


Monday, February 25, 2013 - 10:34