'This has to stop,' senator says as Red Chamber's projected costs balloon by 70%
Number of Senate bureaucrats has risen more than 30 per cent in just 5 years
The projected cost to run the Senate of Canada next year has soared roughly 70 per cent higher than when Justin Trudeau first became prime minister — an increase some say is unacceptable, given that the number of senators has remained static over the same period.
The Senate's standing committee on internal economy, budgets and administration (CIBA), the body of senators that governs the upper house, adopted a budget on Thursday that would cost Canadian taxpayers $126.7 million in the 2023-24 fiscal year.
In 2015-16, the last year before Trudeau's reforms to the Red Chamber, Senate expenditures were $74.5 million.
That substantial increase has prompted some senators to demand an "efficiency review" of all Senate spending to rein in costs at a time when the economy is teetering on the edge of a recession.
All senators on hand for the budget debate agreed the Senate should find ways to do things at a lower cost.
Canadian Senators Group (CSG) Sen. Scott Tannas, the chair of the Senate's estimates subcommittee, is also recommending a temporary hiring freeze.
The number of bureaucrats working in the Red Chamber has gone up more than 30 per cent in just five years. Tannas said he's "concerned" by that.
In 2017, the Senate had 372 full-time equivalents (FTEs) — a term used often to represent full-time workers. The head count is now up to 493 positions.
The number of sitting senators has been well below the chamber's 105-seat capacity for years because the Liberal government has been slow to appoint new people.
The spike in Senate costs has also outpaced the growth in expenses at the House of Commons. The elected body has seen its costs increase by about 40 per cent over the same time period, according to figures published in the public accounts.
Tory senator 'really disturbed' by cost increases
Conservative Senate Leader Don Plett, a member of CIBA, blasted the mounting costs during the budget debate, saying he's "really disturbed" by what he sees as a lackadaisical approach to spending by other senators and some Senate bureaucrats.
"Are Canadians getting 70 per cent more out of the Senate than they did in 2016?" Plett asked. "I was here in 2016 and I'm here now, and I don't think we're getting 70 per cent more."
The increase in costs has been driven largely by Senate administration — the public servants attached to the upper house.
The $126.7 million for next fiscal year represents an increase of four per cent over last year, but senators' office budgets — which are used to pay political staff expenses and other costs — will rise only by 0.7 per cent, Plett said.
The Senate administration's costs, meanwhile, are up 8.6 per cent year over year — a figure that is higher than inflation, which clocked in at about 5.3 per cent in October.
"The administration has to become much more frugal. We need to go through the budget line by line. We are not getting value for our money," Plett told the budget debate. "Colleagues, this has to stop."
The Tory senator said that with Canada facing tough economic times, the Senate needs to "start leading by example" and get its fiscal house in order.
"I do not think our Senate, over the last seven years, has led by example," Plett said, adding that few private businesses would be allowed to increase their costs so dramatically in such a short period of time without a reckoning.
Alison Korn, a spokesperson for CIBA, disputed Plett's numbers, saying the seven-year increase is actually lower than the sum he cited because some of money allocated in years past went unspent.
Plett's numbers are drawn from the federal government's supplementary estimates.
Korn offered an explanation for the increase in costs.
"The 2023-24 budget is based on the principles of maintaining high-quality service to senators and sound management of public funds in the context of the pandemic and post-pandemic recovery," Korn said.
"It includes inflation, economic salary increases, increase in cost, investments in technology and new initiatives."
She said new employees were added to "address specific initiatives" and because of the "move to the new Senate of Canada Building." She also cited an increase in unnamed "activities and volumes" and "legislative requirements."
Some senators disapprove of criticism
Plett's comments prompted a strong rebuke from some Trudeau-appointed senators, who said his criticism of budget increases could be read as an attack on the bureaucrats who serve senators and their political staff.
Plett said that was not his intention.
Ontario Independent Sen. Tony Dean, a Trudeau-appointed senator who previously served as Ontario's most senior civil servant, said senators have to be "cautious" about criticizing the budget because it could be seen as "sending the wrong signals to people who support us in this organization."
Another Trudeau appointee, Sen. Hassan Yussuff, the former president of the Canadian Labour Congress, said the Senate is "not a business" and it can't adhere to corporate spending choices.
"I think we need to differentiate how we manage an institution that's responsible for doing a different thing than businesses," he said.
"The public ... needs to appreciate the hard work we do on their behalf," he said. "The taxpayers who are paying for it should have an understanding that what we're doing here is of value to them."
New Brunswick CSG Sen. Jim Quinn, another Trudeau pick for the upper house, suggested at one point during the budget debate that the committee move "in camera" — behind closed doors — to discuss budget issues in secret without the public and press on hand.
"I take exception to that," Plett shot back, adding Canadians should know what the Senate does with their money.
Ontario Independent Sen. Lucie Moncion, the chair of CIBA, defended some of the cost increases, saying the Senate is doing more now than it did seven years ago.
The upper house, for example, now broadcasts its proceedings on television and online, which has added to the budget and employee count, she said.
"Over the last five years, there have been major changes that have occurred," Moncion said.
At the same time, the Senate has been able to offload some expenses that it once had to pay.
Since 2015, the Senate has had much lower security expenses thanks to the creation of the Parliamentary Protective Service, which merged the once-separate House of Commons and Senate security branches into one Parliament Hill-wide security service under the RCMP's command.
That merger moved most of the security-related expenses off the Senate's books.
- The first two paragraphs of this story have been edited to make it clear that the 70 per cent figure is based on the Senate's budget for next year compared to Senate expenditures in Justin Trudeau's first year in office.Mar 10, 2023 5:14 PM ET