Opinion-Policy Nexus

We have all heard or read stories about those Japanese soldiers who went into hiding, combat ready, in the jungles of Indonesia or the Philippines as the Second World War was ending, only to re-emerge decades later to discover to their amazement that the war was over.

These stories bring to mind the Senate of Canada.

Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that any of our esteemed senators, like those Japanese “stragglers” (as they were known), are hiding out in the Gatineau Hills. But I am going to suggest that at times senators stubbornly persist in continuing battles long after the war has been fought and lost.

The Senate expenses scandal was such a war.  It had quite a cast of warriors: Senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau; ex-Senator Mac Harb; former Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his chief of staff, Nigel Wright; small armies of accountants and auditors; RCMP investigators;  and a year-long criminal trial presided over by Ontario Court Justice Charles Vaillancourt.

For all practical purposes, the war ended – and the Stephen Harper loyalists in the Senate lost it – in April this year when Justice Vaillancourt handed down his verdict in the Duffy trial. Duffy, a senator from Prince Edward Island with a home in Ottawa, had been charged with 31 counts, including bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

The judge not only acquitted Duffy on all 31 counts, he did it resoundingly, making it clear that Duffy had followed all the Senate expense rules as they existed, and as they were explained to him by the officers of upper house. It was not his fault that the rules were ill-defined and sloppily enforced.

With Duffy’s acquittal, the rest of the scandal collapsed. Charges against Harb and Brazeau were withdrawn, the RCMP investigation of Wallin was abandoned without any charges, and the Mounties closed their files in all 30 cases that had been referred to them. Cleared of wrongdoing, Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau retook their seats in the Senate.

And that, you might think, was that.

But no.  Although the war may have been over, the battles continued. Harper loyalists who control the powerful internal economy committee – the body that oversees senators’ spending – are determined to proceed against six other senators and the estate of a seventh who died during the expenses war.  The total amount involved is potentially $528,000. Although the chances of collecting the money seem problematic, outside lawyers have been retained to prepare statements of claim.

What’s more, the Senate is clawing back $17,000 from Duffy’s salary to recover expense payments that the committee still contests despite the court ruling in Duffy’s favour.

Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau were all suspended by the Senate in November 2013. Each lost nearly two years’ pay and benefits before they were automatically reinstated when Harper dissolved Parliament for the October 2015 election.

Duffy and his lawyer believe he should be compensated to the tune of $155, 867.56, plus his legal expenses. Not surprisingly, the Senate committee does not agree.

Fairness and common sense would suggest that the Senate should do three things: terminate all efforts to compel repayment of expense money; compensate all three senators for the money that their suspensions cost them; and formally apologize for the way the institution treated them.

Former Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, now master of Massey College at the University of Toronto, nailed it in an interview with CBC radio: “Huge reputational damage was done ... there was an attempt at suicide, I mean we're dealing with huge harm to people. Rather than fix [spending] rules when the anomalies became apparent, the board of internal economy ... decided it was easier to throw them under the bus….

“The institution has made a mistake — it should admit it made a mistake — and then we can move on with a clear conscience, and Canadians, I think, will feel more strongly, and more positively, about the institution.”

He’s right.


Monday, October 3, 2016 - 08:45