Politics

Independent Senators call for oversight body to review Red Chamber expenses with external members

The Independent Senators Group is tabling a notice of motion on Thursday to make audits more transparent and accountable by bringing in outsiders to review expenses.

Membership would consist of 3 senators and 2 outside members

Ontario Sen. Tony Dean of the Independent Senators Group is leading a new attempt to bring in an added layer of financial accountability in the Red Chamber. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Independent senators are launching a new effort to strike an audit and oversight body with external members in the Red Chamber to review expenses following years of financial scandals and an unfulfilled recommendation from the federal auditor general. 

The Independent Senators Group (ISG) deputy facilitator, Quebec Sen. Raymonde Saint-Germain, will be tabling a notice of motion on Thursday to form the Standing Senate Committee on Audit and Oversight, which would be made up of three senators and two non-partisan, outside members who have expertise in financial audits.

The makeup of the proposed group aims to satisfy unease from some members of the upper house over having outside scrutiny over internal affairs of the Senate.

"I believe that the Senate is now ready for this innovation," Saint-Germain said.

"I'm optimistic that it will be agreed on by a majority of senators."

In 2015, the auditor general recommended an extra layer of accountability over Senate expense claims comprised by a majority of members from outside the Red Chamber, including the chair.

The suggestion did not sit well with some senators. 

"I would not be in favour if the Senate ceded authority to people who are not in the Senate," said Conservative Sen. David Wells of Newfoundland. 

"If there were outside experts who contributed to a committee, than that's something that I would consider positive."

The issue of Senate finances came to the forefront of public consciousness during the expenses scandal of 2013-16. Four senators faced police investigations and — in at least three cases — criminal charges for alleged misspending and impropriety. All of those charges were ultimately dismissed.

Wells said he wants to see any oversight committee probe go beyond routine assessments and instead perform random audits of senators with deep dives into the finances of specific projects.

The new proposal would give two external members the ability to file publicly available dissenting reports.

"We certainly think it's important that our external audit colleagues would have the ability to disagree where in their professional opinion they would go a different route and to make those comments public," said ISG Sen. Tony Dean of Ontario. 

"I think that's an approach that would ensure that the people on that committee do their work really well and really rigorously."

Deputy facilitator of the Independent Senators Group, Sen. Raymonde Saint-Germain of Quebec, is tabling a notice of motion on Thursday to create a new audit and oversight committee. (Chris Rands/CBC)

The move is a bow to Peter Harder, who is retiring at the end of the year as the government's representative in the Senate. Harder sought the creation of an audit committee that includes outside members, such as former judges or experts in corporate governance to represent the public interest.

The Senate has discussed a number of models since Harder's initial attempts, including one that would have seen the oversight body comprised by a majority of external members and a minority of Senators or vice versa.

The proposed body would be able to inspect all Senate expenses, but Dean does not envision members combing through every senator's expense claims for days on end.

"I think that their job is to ensure that the processes that we have in place and the people that we have in place to examine those expense claims and ensure proprietary are equipped to do that," he said.

Senators would be chosen for the new oversight body by the upper house's selection committee prior to being endorsed by the Senate. The guiding principle, according to Dean, is that the three Senate members cannot be drawn from any one group. 

Former senators would not be allowed to join the oversight entity as outside members.

'Dragged on for too long'

The group would have the power to decide if and when it sits publicly, according to Saint-Germain.

The move is part of the ISG's modernization endeavours to make the Red Chamber more transparent and accountable. 

It would also have the responsibility of hiring an external auditor, monitoring or overseeing audit plans developed by Senate staff and the ability to make recommendations on its findings. 

The proposal follows models adopted by the British House of Lords and the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, which have audit committees with outsiders as members.

Wells said he thinks an oversight body is overdue, but would reserve judgment until he sees the motion's details. 

Conservative Sen. David Wells of Newfoundland says a Senate expense oversight body is long overdue, but he wants to make sure it is not entirely made up of external members. (CBC)

"Every department in the government, in the government of Canada, is subject to audit and oversight and the Senate should be too," Wells said.

"Anytime a government institution, department, directorate or branch spends taxpayers money, there should be adequate oversight to ensure that there's responsible expenditures."

Meanwhile, independents call it a major step to help restore public confidence in one of the country's highest governing  institutions. 

"It's important. It's dragged on for too long," Dean said.

"We're doing no more than Canadians would expect us to do in terms of managing our affairs appropriately and transparently."

About the Author

Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.