Senate opens door to independent oversight of senators' spending

The Senate is opening the door to the idea of outsiders taking a second look at its spending.

Auditor General Michael Ferguson welcomes move, wants oversight body to have majority of ousiders

After the Senate expenses scandal succeeded in calling into question the accountability and openness of the Red Chamber, the Senate is considering allowing outsiders to double check senators' expense claims. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The Senate is opening the door to the idea of outsiders taking a second look at its spending.

"We have not and will not waver from our commitment to be more transparent, efficient and accountable," Conservative Sen. Leo Housakos, chair of the Senate standing committee on internal economy, budgets and administration, said in a joint statement with Sen. Jane Cordy, the Liberal deputy chair.

When auditor general Michael Ferguson released his scathing report on the Senate expense scandal last year, one of his key recommendations was the creation of an independent oversight body to ensure that senators would no longer police themselves though the internal economy committee.

Senate leadership appeared at the time to be cool to the idea, instead pointing to a binding arbitration process overseen by retired Supreme Court justice Ian Binnie they set up for senators who wished to challenge the findings of the auditor general.

One of the complications against turning over the books is that the Parliament of Canada Act gives the internal economy committee exclusive authority over all financial and administrative matters, so handing control to an outside body is not as straightforward as it would seem.

But the Senate is nonetheless turning its attention to finding a longer-term solution closer to what Ferguson recommended.

"We are now looking at long-term options, such as an independent oversight committee, to deal with senators' expenses on a regular basis," Housakos and Cordy said in the statement.

Promise of a more accountable Senate

They said the audit subcommittee — composed of Conservative senators Denise Batters and Larry Smith, along with Independent Sen. Larry Campbell — was asked to review the options and make recommendations once the Senate had finished implementing its new, proactive disclosure system for expenses and contracts.

"As we have said all along, these changes take time because we want to make sure we do things properly," the statement said. "But make no mistake, we will remain committed to our promise to Canadians, to be more open and careful with tax dollars."

Ferguson's June 2015 report, which followed an exhaustive two-year investigation, flagged nearly $1 million in problematic expenses, identified problems stemming from a lack of oversight and called for "transformational change" to the way the Senate handles its affairs.

That included detailed recommendations for an independent oversight body with the final authority to decide whether expense claims comply with the rules.

Ferguson greeted the openness to exploring independent oversight with cautious optimism.

"It's more than a year now since we issued the report and certainly I would hope that the Senate would turn its attention to trying to put in place the right way to oversee the senators' expenses," Ferguson said in an interview Friday.

Changes 'long overdue'

Ferguson had also recommended the oversight body have a majority of its membership, including its chair, come from outside the Senate.

"I think as soon as you have senators sitting on that type of a body, people are going to want to know how can they act independently?" Ferguson said when asked whether having senators on the committee would set off alarm bells.

"So making sure that there is some way of having that independence is, I think, a fundamental thing and that becomes more difficult if some members of that oversight body are in fact senators," he said.

Independent Sen. John Wallace said a recent decision by the internal economy committee to require Sen. Mike Duffy to repay nearly $17,000 in expenses — even after he was acquitted of related criminal charges in April — shows how the status quo leaves "far too much power in the hands of far too few people".

He also said change is long overdue.

"I get a bit tired of hearing that we are going to be accountable and transparent," he said. "I mean, those are wonderful words, but it's time to get on with it and get on with it now."