Saturday January 02, 2016

'More transparency' key to Senate redemption, says Senator Beth Marshall

The Senate chamber on Parliament Hill.

The Senate chamber on Parliament Hill. (Chris Wattie/Reuters )

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by Chris Hall

Some things are closely linked in people's minds. Provide the first, and they invariably provoke the second. Think Wayne and Shuster. Batman and Robin. Life and death.

Or Senate and scandal.

It wasn't always like that, but 2015 marked the third year in which the expenses imbroglio once again dominated what the public heard and saw about the Senate.

YEAR Diary Year end photo package

Senator Mike Duffy is followed by his lawyer Donald Bayne (right) as he arrives at the courthouse in Ottawa for his first court appearance in April 2015. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

In the process, Mike Duffy finally came to trial on 31 charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust. And Auditor General Michael Ferguson issued a scathing report in June that not only identified another 30 senators for spending irregularities, but recommended nine of them be referred to the police for investigation after they claimed a wide array of personal expenses as Senate business.

Oh. And in his report, Ferguson savaged the upper chamber for what he called its lax and inadequate procedures to ensure taxpayers' money was respected.

"Simply changing or adding to existing rules will not be enough," Ferguson wrote in his report. "Improvements in oversight, accountability, transparency and senators' consideration for the cost to taxpayers are needed to resolve the issues we have identified."

RAW: AG explains report and defends cost6:26

Ferguson found widespread abuse: from expensing travel to attending meetings of a wine promotion organization, to paying staff to attend a wedding anniversary.

Others charged taxpayers for fishing trips and to take taxis from their Ottawa home to Parliament Hill.

Ferguson recommended the Senate create a special group of non-senators with the sole task of overseeing Senate spending, and that this group report its findings to the public.

The inference is clear. Ferguson — like so many other Canadians — doesn't trust the Senate to police itself.

Senator and former auditor general

At least one other senator agrees with Ferguson that the institution — if it is to survive, if it is to ever move past this sorry chapter in its history — must make dramatic changes.

"I don't have any problem whatsoever with independent oversight," says Conservative Elizabeth Marshall, a former auditor general herself in her home province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

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Senator Beth Marshall has asked the Senate rules committee to look into the compensation she receives for her Senate duties. (CBC)

In an interview with CBC Radio's The House, Marshall spoke at length about what the Senate needs to do, and the steps it has to take, to move past the expenses scandal that first arose in early 2013 with media reports about Mike Duffy's living expenses.

"For me, the auditor general's report has had a bigger impact than the Duffy trial," Marshall says. "The trial is isolated to one senator, but the audit was of the entire institution so we're all implicated. There have to be a lot of changes in the Senate."

Some changes already have been made.

The Senate began requiring senators to disclose their expenses and any contracts worth more than $10,000. It also brought in new rules governing accommodation in Ottawa, revised the chamber's ethics code and, this year, tightened the rules around travel.

But Marshall says that is all too piecemeal.

"They're almost like changes in isolation. We're changing some rules, tightening things up here and there," she said in the interview. "Now we have a roadmap to address what the auditor general says about the Senate in its entirety."

Individual audits

Even so, Marshall acknowledges change is never easy, especially for an institution like the Senate, which fiercely defends its independence.

For example, Marshall urged her colleagues to consent to individual audits soon after she was appointed in 2010. She even offered to be first. But there was a reluctance to do that. People don't like audits, she says, and her proposal didn't carry.

That reluctance remains. The former speaker, Conservative Leo Housakos, told reporters last June that the Senate has already acted.

"Name me one legislature that had the auditor general audit them twice in five years," he challenged reporters after Ferguson made his report public.

In reply, Marshall says that's probably not good enough: Senators need to convince Canadians that they are getting value for their money.

"There has to be more transparency," she says. A good first step would be to join the House of Commons in televising the Senate itself, not just its committees.

"People don't know what the Senate does.  I think we have to get out there and demonstrate to people. They have to see what we do."

It's just one example of a number of ways the Senate needs to be more transparent — about what Senators do, and how they do it — before another year passes.