Politics

The cost of the Senate has soared in the last five years

The cost to run the Senate of Canada has increased by more than a third over the last five years as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's reform agenda has led, in part, to increased expenditures in the upper house.

After adjusting for inflation, the upper house costs taxpayers over $20 million more a year

The Senate of Canada building and Senate Chamber are pictured in Ottawa on Monday, Feb. 18, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The cost to run the Senate of Canada has increased by more than a third over the last five years as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's reform agenda has led, in part, to increased expenditures in the upper house.

CBC News has reviewed the Senate's spending over the last six years. Before Trudeau's first election, in the 2014-15 fiscal year, the Senate cost taxpayers $85.4 million a year (or $90 million in inflation-adjusted 2019 dollars).

The Red Chamber was allocated $114 million for the 2019-2020 fiscal year. That's a 33.4 per cent increase in just five years' time.

The Senate is spending millions more on research, office, travel and living expenses, information technology (IT), human resources and media relations — and it has hired dozens more full-time bureaucrats.

Senate committees are travelling more; the natural resources committee undertook a cross-country tour in the spring while studying Bill C-69, for example. That has led to tens of thousands of dollars in new costs for the upper house.

Unlike the situation in 2014-15, the Senate now has almost a full complement of senators, with 100 of the 105 seats occupied.

However, the addition of more senators doesn't explain all of the cost hikes. The planned spending for this fiscal year is still considerably higher than it was the last time the Senate had close to a complete line-up of senators.

(CBC News)

In 2013-2014, for example, when there were roughly seven vacancies at any given time, the upper house cost taxpayers about $88 million, or $94 million in inflation-adjusted 2019 dollars.

And since 2015, the Senate has been able to offload some $6 million in annual security expenses thanks to the creation of the Parliamentary Protective Service, which merged the once-separate Commons and Senate security branches into one Parliament Hill-wide security service. The merger moved most of the security-related expenses off the Senate's books.

All told, the place is costing taxpayers roughly $20 million more a year, even when accounting for vacancies and inflation. That figure does not include the security savings.

The costs could increase further with the introduction of new Senate groups.

A splinter group of like-minded former Conservative and Independent Senators Group (ISG) senators formed last week.

Under the rules, the 11 members of the new Canadian Senators Group (CSG) are entitled to some $460,000 a year in new funding to hire staff for a secretariat to help prepare research.

The Senate's all-powerful internal economy, budgets and administration (CIBA) committee is deciding if the group should receive new money or if its budget should be proportionately reallocated from the other caucuses and groups.

The committee punted a decision on funding last week to allow leaders of the various groups to see if there's any "spare change" available for the CSG.

(CBC News)

The fledgling Progressive Senate Group, a group composed of former Liberal senators, also could receive more money if its membership grows from nine to 16 senators.

Conservative Saskatchewan Sen. Denise Batters said she and other Conservatives have been trying to "hold the line on spending" but they're often out-voted or accused of "micro-managing" by Independent members on the internal economy committee on budget items.

"I think it's par for the course with this prime minister. I mean, not only is Justin Trudeau's so-called independent Senate fake but it's become very expensive," she said.

"The Senate has the same purpose and the same number of senators that it's had in the past, but under the Trudeau government the cost has now ballooned."

Batters maintains the independent Senate is "fake" because many of the ISG senators support the Liberal government's legislative agenda. "They claim to be independent yet they vote in lockstep with the Trudeau government," she said.

A CBC News analysis from 2018 found ISG senators vote with the government, on average, over 90 per cent of time.

"I think it's an institution that's definitely worth a sizeable amount of money to help us to do the proper work of making sure our laws are the best they can be," said Sen. Batters. "I think the public, as long as they know what's going on, and they're confident that we're keeping a careful watch over their money, they're OK with that.

"What they're not OK with is costs going sky-high."

A spokesperson for the ISG declined to comment on the growing costs of the Senate.

Sarabjit Marwah, centre, stands with Senator Frances Lankin, left, and Senator Peter Harder before being sworn in during a ceremony in the Senate. Marwah is the chair of the Senate's internal economy, budgets and administration committee. A spokesperson for the committee declined to comment on increased Senate spending. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Alison Korn, a spokeswoman for the internal economy committee which governs the Senate's budget and the administration, declined to comment. She referred CBC News to the transcript of a committee meeting from February.

Korn also declined to release detailed spending plans. She said briefing notes prepared by bureaucrats are "not public documents."

The increased cost of the Red Chamber is attributed in part to the proliferation of Senate caucuses and groups under Trudeau, each of which receives funds to carry out its work in this new multi-partisan chamber.

The ISG, a group composed largely of Trudeau appointees that identify as Independents, is allocated $1.5 million a year for its staff and research.

The government representative in the upper house, Peter Harder, and his two legislative lieutenants also have a budget of $1.62 million a year to help them guide government legislation through the Senate.

The Conservative caucus collects $1.34 million from taxpayers each year to fund its activities, while the Progressive Senate Group (the former Senate Liberal caucus) has a budget of $410,000.

In sum, taxpayers spend about $4.9 million a year to fund the political and policy work of these caucuses and groups.

Before Trudeau's independence push, there were only two organized partisan caucuses — the Conservatives and the Liberals — and they shared a smaller pool of money.

It's not just the caucus budgets that have driven up the cost of the Senate.

Individual senator office budgets have increased from $185,400 to $222,480 a year — an increase of $37,000 — over the last five years. Budgeted expenses for senators and their offices, which include compensation, office expenses, travel and living expenses, increased by $7.7 million.

Senate administration also has hired dozens more staff members in recent years — 59 "full-time employees" (FTEs) in the last two years alone — notably in the Senate's communications branch, which pushes PR material to media and the public.

The reorganization of the Senate's human resources department, the advent of television coverage of Senate proceedings and the creation of a new "corporate services" bureaucracy together account for $4.3 million in new spending.

The transportation and telecommunications budget line item also has increased because Senate committees are travelling more. The Senate has had to hire more lawyers in recent years, which has added hundreds of thousands of dollars to the budget.

Expenses for "corporate systems" and "IT enhancements" have added $3.4 million to the annual cost of the place.

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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