Senate committee turns ugly, shouting ensues amid accusations of a 'smear campaign' over expenses

A meeting of the Senate's all-powerful internal economy committee became heated Thursday as Independent Senator Marilou McPhedran accused another member of the Red Chamber of trying to destroy her reputation by insinuating she has been untruthful about her expenses.

Independent Sen. Marilou McPhedran was appealing a decision to deny payment for a trip to Iceland

Independent Manitoba Sen. Marilou McPhedran sought an appeal of the Senate's denial of her travel expenses for a trip to Iceland. McPhedran said another senator, Denise Batters, tried to smear her name by insinuating she was untruthful during her testimony. (CBC)

A meeting of the Senate's all-powerful internal economy committee became heated Thursday as Independent Sen. Marilou McPhedran accused another member of the Red Chamber of trying to ruin her reputation by insinuating she has been untruthful about her expenses.

McPhedran, who was appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last year to represent Manitoba, was before the committee in an attempt to appeal a decision it made to deny her request to pay for a trip she took to Iceland for a meeting of women parliamentarians. McPhedran says the trip cost $2,200, the committee puts it at $5,500. 

She accused the members of the steering committee — the three-member panel that makes decisions on budgets, and which includes a woman senator — who rejected her request of being "sexist… destructive and discriminatory." McPhedran made the trip while the Senate was sitting.

This is her second appeal of a decision by the committee this month. Last week, she appealed a decision to block payment of a trip she made to Winnipeg for a fundraiser for the Youth Parliament of Manitoba and a dental appointment. The Senate rejected her claim as trips primarily for the purpose of fundraising are not admissible.

McPhedran told the committee that a former staffer in her office — who has since left Parliament Hill — told her that she would be allowed to bill the Senate for her flights to Winnipeg as it is her hometown.

Conservative Sen. Denise Batters confronted McPhedran about that statement on Thursday, saying that staffer had come forward to say the senator had misrepresented her words.

"I have heard about a letter this chair of the committee received from your former staff person in which, I understand, that staff person alleges that you have misrepresented those facts. I have not seen this letter, but if those allegations are true then, Sen. McPhedran, those facts would lead us to the conclusion that you may have misled this committee," Batters said.

"I view this as a very serious and troubling concern that needs to be addressed immediately," she added, addressing the chairman. 

'Order, order!'

Independent B.C. Sen. Larry Campbell, the chairman in question, confirmed he did receive a letter but would not be releasing it publicly as the person does not want to come before the committee to testify'

She "quite frankly, didn't want to appear in the room," with McPhedran, he said.

The allegations prompted anger from McPhedran. "If what you're doing here Sen. Batters is attempt to smear my reputation as the lead comment on this appeal, go ahead, just try, it's not going to work."

She then accused Batters and Campbell of conspiring as she questioned how the former knew about the letter sent to Campbell. Campbell said he told Batters about the letter, but did not encourage her to question McPhedran on its contents.

Cross-talk ensued between McPhedran and Batters, over cries of "order, order" from Campbell and other members of the committee.

"This is about my reputation. I insist on being heard on this," she said.

Campbell asked for some decorum. "This isn't a debating society. This is a committee meeting and I expect order from everybody in here," to which McPhedran replied, "And I expect there not to be smears."

McPhedran ultimately lost her appeal by a vote of 12 to 1.

The internal economy committee has traditionally held meetings in private but, under the former chair, Sen. Leo Housakos, made some portions available for public viewing.

In an interview with CBC News, McPhedran said she wasn't surprised she lost the vote. She said she has pushed to have these appeals heard in public to shine light on what she calls a shadowy decision-making process that happens behind closed doors by a small group of senators. She did say she was surprised by Batters' remarks.

'I'm not sure what she was saying'

"I'm not sure what [Batters] was saying other than she was trying to smear my name with no evidence. Certainly, in trying to explain in response, she certainly referenced that she thought it was relevant for credibility, but she didn't offer any evidence," McPhedran said. "If you're going to get that legalistic you best follow not only the rules of natural justice, but evidentiary rules."

McPhedran said she had not heard about the supposed letter from a former staffer until Thursday. "It's not evidence, so I'm not going to speak to it because nothing was actually tabled."

Asked if she thought the proceedings became too ugly, McPhedran said, "I'm not going to be placid or compliant when someone tries to smear my name. That's not going to happen."

Conservative Saskatchewan Sen. Denise Batters said there is a letter from a former staffer of McPhedran's that refutes her telling of events. (Denise Batters/YouTube)

McPhedran added she has had no "substantial conversation" with Batters in the year she has been in the Red Chamber.

As for Campbell's assertion that the staffer didn't want to appear alongside McPhedran, she said the woman should be allowed to appear solo. "I have no idea why he would say that. It's a mystery to me."

In addition to the allegations, McPhedran accused the Senate of being "parochial" in having a "travel ban" on foreign trips. (The Senate allows travel to Washington and to New York if doing business at the United Nations.)

Conservative Sen. Scott Tannas and committee member later shot down that claim saying the Senate will spend some $3 million this year on travel, and much of it on overseas trips for committees and "exceptional circumstances."

Batters declined comment, referring instead to a statement that didn't address the heated exchange, but which said she agrees with the committee's decision to reject McPhedran's appeal.

About the Author

John Paul Tasker

Parliamentary Bureau

John Paul (J.P.) Tasker is a reporter in the CBC's Parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. He can be reached at john.tasker@cbc.ca.