Politics

Senators get pay raise for chairing a committee that met only twice this year

The Senate has quietly passed a motion to boost the salaries of senators who chair the selection committee — a body that has met only twice this year, both times for less than an hour.

The Senate's March 12 selection committee meeting lasted nine minutes

Conservative Senate leader Sen. Don Plett, left, and Independent Senators Group (ISG) leader Sen. Yuen Pau Woo, right. Plett, Woo and Canadian Senators Group Leader Sen. Scott Tannas agreed to a pay raise for the chairs of the Senate's selection committee — a body that rarely meets. (Canadian Press)

The Senate has quietly passed a motion to boost the salaries of senators who chair the selection committee — a body that has met only twice this year, both times for less than an hour.

Sen. Yuen Pau Woo, the leader of the Independent Senators Group (ISG), tabled a lengthy motion on March 11 to designate the selection committee — which establishes membership lists for the Senate's other committees — as a committee like any other, which entitles the chair to an extra $10,100 a year in pay.

In addition to being leader of the ISG — a caucus that houses most of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's appointees — Woo is also the chair of the selection committee and will collect that pay raise himself.

Woo, like other senators, already earns $157,600 a year in base salary, plus living and travel expenses.

The deputy chair, New Brunswick Conservative Sen. Carolyn Stewart Olsen, is entitled to another $5,200 a year in pay because of the rule change.

Only in a place where there's no accountability could you get away with that.- NDP MP Daniel Blaikie

When they do happen, selection committee meetings typically last no more than an hour. Some meetings in the recent past have been considerably shorter.

The meeting on March 12 of this year, for example, was only nine minutes long.

The committee typically meets no more than a handful of times in any given parliamentary session, usually after a federal election or if there's a need for a committee shakeup.

The meetings typically are held to rubber-stamp committee membership lists that already have been negotiated by the leaders of the various Senate caucuses and groups.

Woo, Conservative Senate Leader Don Plett and Canadian Senators Group leader Scott Tannas all agreed to the pay bump for selection committee chairs and signed their names to that agreement on March 10. CBC News has reviewed a copy of the agreement.

The Senate adopted Woo's motion without opposition. It was passed just before the chamber rose for a pandemic-related pause.

The decision to designate this committee a "standing committee" like other, more productive committees goes against past practice.

The Senate rules clearly stipulate the committee is "neither a standing committee nor a special committee" — so there is no obligation to pay the chairs more than their base salaries.

In May 2013, the then Conservative Senate leader, Quebec Sen. Claude Carignan, passed a rule change to designate the chair and deputy chair positions as non-remunerated — unpaid — to reflect the small amount of work the committee actually does.

That new policy came at the height of the 2013-14 Senate expenses scandal as the opposition NDP in the Commons and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation were expressing outrage over the additional compensation.

'Tone deaf'

NDP MP Daniel Blaikie, the party's critic for democratic reform, said Thursday that pushing through a pay raise of this sort now "is the wrong thing to do. I think it's particularly tone deaf."

He said the Senate dropped the extra pay when a scandal intensified public scrutiny of Red Chamber spending — but now that public attention has faded, the upper house has returned to form and past practices have "sneaked back in."

NDP MP Daniel Blaikie: 'Senators — they're there until they're 75 and it doesn't matter what they do ... there's no real recourse.' (Sam Samson/CBC)

"Only in a place where there's no accountability could you get away with that," Blaikie told CBC News. "You can do stuff like this and you don't have to defend it.

"A politician that had to face his or her constituents wouldn't do it because they'd know that people would be upset with them and there'd be consequences. Senators — they're there until they're 75 and it doesn't matter what they do ... there's no real recourse."​​​​​​

Blaikie said both the committee pay raise and the ballooning Senate budget speak to the larger problems associated with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Senate reforms.

'A nightmare'

Trudeau has appointed only independent senators, who do not sit as members of a party caucus. The new senators don't answer to a party whip.

Blaikie said that under the old system — which he also opposed — a party leader from the democratically elected House of Commons at least "had to face the music" over the actions of senators in the party caucus. The ISG senators, Blaikie said, are accountable to no one.

"Justin Trudeau has created a nightmare," he said.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Woo said the decision to "provide a stipend to the chair of (selection) extends the status quo from the previous Parliament (when Sen. Plett was chair), and was agreed to by all leaders/facilitators during negotiations."

Conservative Manitoba Sen. Don Plett is the leader of the Tory caucus in the upper house.

In a statement, Plett said the pay increase was reinstated "a few years ago" and the March motion simply confirmed that pay increase for Woo and Stewart Olsen in this parliamentary session.

"The most recent negotiations established that the opposition leader and the leader of the ISG could name the two steering members of the Selections Committee; I named our deputy chair Sen. Stewart Olsen and Sen. Woo chose to name himself as the chair," Plett said.

As leader of the opposition in the Red Chamber, Plett already collects an extra $41,300 a year in pay.

The selection committee's most recent report is stuck in the Senate as the Speaker investigates a question of parliamentary privilege over how Woo convened the last meeting.

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.

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