Senate scandal brings closer look at communications branch
Frustration grows over directorate's inability to handle requests for information
A bipartisan move is afoot to look at retooling the multimillion-dollar Senate communications directorate, a body that has come to be seen as part of the larger transparency problem inside the upper chamber.
Since the ongoing Senate spending scandal erupted earlier this year, the office has been inundated with calls and requests for information at a pace it had little prior experience handling.
Frustrations have grown steadily among senators and especially the media as the office has repeatedly refused to release basic information or offered only bare-bones responses.
A small committee of three senators — two Conservatives and a Liberal — began discussing the idea of improving communications in 2012, long before the current scandal broke. But when revelations of dubious housing and travel expenses by a group of senators began to surface, the talks were put on hold.
Much of the Senate controversy has focused on the lack of transparency around Senate expenses, as well as the $90,000 cheque provided by Nigel Wright, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's former chief of staff, to cover the disallowed housing claims of Sen. Mike Duffy.
It has since expanded to include hundreds of thousands of dollars in disallowed travel claims filed since 2009 by Sen. Pamela Wallin, like Duffy a former member of the Conservative caucus. Former Liberal senator Mac Harb quit the upper chamber last month after paying back some $231,000 in disallowed living expense claims.
Now that things have calmed down a bit, the idea of looking at Senate communications is gaining momentum again.
"There's a lot of goodwill within the Senate itself to undertake a review of communications," said Conservative Sen. Carolyn Stewart Olsen, a member of the powerful internal economy committee that oversees Senate communications.
Cameras in the Senate?
Stewart Olsen, a former senior press aide to Harper, noted that it would be up to the party Senate leaders in the Senate to agree to a formal process.
Liberal Senate leader James Cowan said he fully supports a review of what the Senate communications office does, and plans to consult with Conservative Senate leader Claude Carignan about the issue.
A selection of questions posed since May to the Senate's communications department by reporters at The Canadian Press that have so far gone unanswered:
- When did Senate Finance first indicate to the internal economy committee that it had concerns with Sen. Pamela Wallin's expenses?
- On which days was Sen. Mike Duffy claiming per diems? (Information not included in an independent auditor's report, but held by Senate Finance)
- How much has Sen. Pamela Wallin repaid to the Receiver General of Canada to date, and what precisely were the repayments for?
- Can you specify which of Wallin's claims listed by independent auditors as needing review were deemed to be acceptable by the internal economy committee and why? Why were others deemed unacceptable?
- What were the financial details that went into calculating the $90,000 total made by the committee on internal economy for Duffy's expense repayment?
- Can you confirm that Wallin must repay her travel expenses by Sept. 16? (Senate communications refused to answer question unless it was formulated in an email).
- Canadian Press
"Many of the requests that I've seen over the last few months are perfectly reasonable and could be answered 'Yes' or 'No' or 'I don't have that information, I'll get it for you,' and the answers are not responsive..." said Cowan.
"That needs to be addressed."
Cowan also said he believes there is widespread support in the Senate for a private member's bill that would introduce cameras in the upper chamber for the first time.
"The Senate has a responsibility to do a better job communicating the work that the Senate does, and I think senators individually have a responsibility to do a better job explaining to people what they do, too."
Meanwhile, the Parliamentary Press Gallery's executive recently identified Senate communications as an issue worth taking up formally with the upper chamber.
When the internal economy committee met in late May to discuss Duffy's housing claims, reporters in the room were told not to approach nearby Senate finance director Nicole Proulx, but rather to email questions to Senate communications officers.
Even the office's annual budget is kept under wraps. When asked for the number last month, Senate communications referred to a global 2013-14 estimate of $31.9 million encompassing all "administrative support."
Senate communications later pointed to administrative rules that state only information that has been authorized for release or already published can be shared.
Behind the scenes, the office shares all media inquiries — including the names of inquisitive reporters — with the 18 members of the internal economy committee, as well as the Conservative and Liberal leaders in the Senate.
The taxpayer-funded, non-partisan office's responsibilities include public information and media relations, providing advice and support to committees and to the Senate Speaker and the clerk, as well as handling social media and Senate websites.
Senators say their problem is not with communications staff, but with the vague mandate given to the office and the generally closed culture they say exists in the Senate.
The Senate communications office said it was not authorized to give interviews. Senate Speaker Noel Kinsella's office, which has ultimate authority over the directorate, did not respond to a request for comment.