The president of the Treasury Board says he'll work to reverse an interpretation from his own department in order to disallow pension contributions for suspended senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau.
In a bizarre twist, Tony Clement contradicted advice that came from the Treasury Board about whether the senators, who are banned from coming to work and have had their Senate incomes eliminated, are on pensionable time during the two-year suspension period.
On Thursday, a spokesperson for Senate administration staff issued a statement saying Senate staff have been in discussions with the Treasury Board Secretariat about the pension status of Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau.
The upshot, according to Annie Joanette, is that regulations under the Parliament of Canada Act "require pension contributions to be made during the period of suspension of a senator, and therefore the period of suspension counts as pensionable service."
Clement, in a scrum with reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons, said, "If it requires changing the Parliament of Canada Act, then it requires changing the Parliament of Canada Act."
It's not clear, if the Senate makes pension contributions on behalf of Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau, whether the three would have to also contribute a portion. This might be a difficult proposition since their salaries have been cut completely.
The three senators were suspended Tuesday by a Senate vote because of inappropriately claimed expenses.
Eligible after 6 years' service
Senators are eligible to retire with a pension after six years of service. The three senators began their Senate careers in January 2009 and would presumably be eligible to retire before the time of the next election, expected in October 2015, when their suspensions would expire.
Both Duffy and Wallin are over 55, and would theoretically be able to collect a small pension after six years. Brazeau is in his thirties.
Despite losing their pay cheques, they were allowed to keep medical benefits and life insurance. It's still unknown whether any of them could apply to go on long-term disability and thus collect two-thirds of their salaries even while suspended.
This is a particularly pertinent question for Duffy who has a heart condition and is scheduled for a cardiac procedure Friday.
Despite the advice Senate administration staff received from his own department, Clement told reporters that allowing contributions to the three senators' pension plans would violate the "spirit" of the Senate motion that suspended them.
Asked about the possibility of the senators taking the government to court over the pension issue, Clement replied he would fight a legal challenge.
Claude Carignan, the government leader in the Senate, said he is seeking "legal advice" about the pension issue.
He told reporters in the Senate foyer, "It's not a rush. We are not rushed here. So, we will take the time we need to take to study our options and to ensure, at the maximum that we could, that the spirit and the letter of these three motions will be respected."
Liberal Senate Leader James Cowan, asked why Clement would contradict his own department's advice, and told reporters, "I've said from the beginning that they're making this whole thing up as they go along. This is just the latest chapter. How many twists and turns have we had on this path over the past three weeks?"