Canada, Camembert, and Controversy: How to Save the Canadian Senate

On Monday, October 19th, Canadians voted in the first new Prime Minister in over a decade. The Liberal party walloped the reigning Conservative party, capturing 55% of the seats in the House of Commons, while the Conservatives retained only 29% of the seats. But the Canadian public’s desire for change is not limited to the House of Commons. The Canadian Senate, the unelected chamber of “sober second thought,” has been rocked by an expenses scandal reminiscent of the 2009 MP expense scandal in the United Kingdom (see here), and the ongoing series of minor expense scandals in the United States (see here).

In late 2012 it was revealed that four Canadian Senators – Pamela Wallin, Patrick Brazeau, Mike Duffy, and Mac Harb – used their Senate expense accounts for personal and private business. As a product of these revelations, all four resigned or were removed from office, and all four have been indicted on criminal charges. In the response to the unfolding scandal, Auditor General Michael Ferguson launched an investigation into the finances of all Canadian Senators and found about 840,000 dollars in suspect claims. His investigation pointed to a systematic failure on the part of Senators to provide appropriate documentation for their expenses and to “prioritize consideration of the cost [of their expenses] to taxpayers.” (As with most proper scandals, there have been moments of levity in addition to frustration. Ferguson’s audit report suggested Canadian Senators should not claim per diem meals when other food had been made available, but Senator Nancy Ruth took umbrage at the suggestion that she was obligated to eat a free airplane breakfast consisting of, in her words, “ice-cold Camembert with broken crackers.”)

Partly as a result of this scandal, faith in the Canadian Senate is at an all-time low. Before his defeat, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper had stopped nominating new Senators. In 2014, the Liberal party kicked all of its Senators out of the party’s ranks, thereby converting them to “independent” Senators. The NDP, Canada’s third largest party, has long called for abolishing the chamber entirely. What, then, should be done to reform Canada’s beleaguered Senate? Ferguson’s audit report offers several promising proposals for addressing the concerns about Senator integrity  But the problems with the Senate as an institution run deeper, and will likely call for more thorough reform (even if abolition of the Senate is politically and legally infeasible).

First, consider several of the proposals that Ferguson’s audit report recommended. Some modification to these proposals is likely necessary, but they have considerable merit and ought to be adopted in some form:

  • Independent Oversight Body. Currently, a committee within the Senate has exclusive authority over Senate finances, including those of individual Senators. This creates the potential for self-interested behavior: Senators on the committee may create lax rules, knowing those rules will apply to them as well. The audit report recommended Canada adopt an independent oversight board for Senate expenses. The UK parliament did exactly this in the wake of the 2009 expenses scandal. The UK body, known as IPSA, is, according to one report, the only independent body in the world that both (1) creates detailed rules regarding legislator expenditure and (2) administers those rules. The IPSA has admittedly not been without controversy, with British MPs complaining of insufficient advice on expenses and extensive red tape. One report suggests that an account management model, where administrators are assigned to particular legislators’ offices, could be a better way to manage claims. In adopting its independent body the Canadian Senate can look to the UK model, perhaps with an account management structure. If concerns about cost are high, Canada could adopt an independent body to make spending rules, but vest the responsibility for processing claims with the Senators’ staffs.
  • Transparency. Senators’ expenses are published online but, as the audit report noted, those disclosures have been woefully incomplete. The audit report advocates more comprehensive disclosure online, voluntarily managed by the Senators. But this does not go far enough: The Canadian Senate should be subject to the Access to Information Act, Canada’s public disclosure law. A request by a UK Telegraph reporter under the UK’s Freedom of Information Act is credited with setting off the chain of events that ultimately uncovered the UK expense scandal. A request under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act recently helped precipitate the resignation of Congressman Aaron Schock in the United States, accused of inappropriate travel and office decorating expenses. Subjecting the Canadian Senate to Access to Information Act requests, or passing a new Freedom of Information Act specifically for the Canadian Senate, could allow the public and the press to police inappropriate spending.
  • Regular Audits. The Ferguson report suggested that the Senate should be audited with some regularity. Academic work has shown that audits can dramatically change honesty in self-reporting going forward, as can the threat of future audits. However, as comedian John Oliver has bombastically noted, Ferguson’s audit of the Canadian Senate uncovered about one dollar of improper spending for every 24 dollars the auditing committee spent. Thus, there are serious financial concerns with regular auditing. If claims are processed and approved by an independent oversight board, perhaps auditing will not be necessary. Otherwise, auditing should be targeted towards higher value expenses and other expenditures with a high risk of abuse.

The above reforms are all steps in the right direction. But the concerns about the Canadian Senate go much further than improper expenditures. Indeed, the Canadian Senate has long been criticized as a dumping ground for political hacks, fundraisers, and failed candidates. While some have called for outright abolition of the Senate, that seems impracticable due to Constitutional constraints. Nonetheless, there does seem to be some momentum for broader, more fundamental changes in the role and structure of the Canadian Senate. In this spirit, Prime Minister-elect Justin Trudeau and his Liberal party have promised “a new, nonpartisan, merit-based, broad, and diverse process to advise the Prime Minister on Senate appointments.” While the new PM has been disappointingly light on specifics, his broad suggestion has real merit. While public officials can be corrupt regardless of whether they are affiliated with a political party, a shift towards non-partisanship may make sense. If appointments are based on merit, this could restore faith in the Senate itself, which is frequently criticized as being ineffective. And focusing on appointing Senators of high integrity should increase the likelihood of corruption-free behavior in the Senate.

More generally, research suggests that corruption not only leads to distrust in government, but distrust can lead to heightened sensitivity toward potentially corrupt action (see here for a discussion of relevant literature). While improper spending by public officials is always serious, some of the ill-advised spending highlighted by the Ferguson report (including, for instance, excessive spending on holiday cards) does not seem, at first blush, to rise to the level of a full-fledged scandal. But, because of the sheer ineffectiveness of the Canadian Senate, frustration over improper spending is especially justified. Restoring faith in the Senate could lead to a greater willingness to forgive small improprieties. The Canadian Senate has a long way to go before it can regain the confidence, or at least not incur the ire, of the Canadian public. However, the reforms on the table have promise. Only time will tell whether these reforms will be implemented and be effective — whether one day all Canadian Senators will eat free Camembert and crackers, regardless of temperature.

8 thoughts on “Canada, Camembert, and Controversy: How to Save the Canadian Senate

  1. Pingback: Canada, Camembert, and Controversy: How to Save the Canadian Senate | Anti Corruption Digest

  2. Thanks for a very interesting post! I’m interested to hear more about your take on Prime Minister-elect Trudeau’s plan to appoint senators based on merit, and what impact you think that may have on the likelihood of corrupt behavior. While I agree that this plan would lessen the partisanship in the Senate, I don’t see as clear of a nexus with corrupt behavior. Is it your view that non-partisan candidates would be less likely to abuse their position and expenses? Or is it more that this plan might improve Canadians’ trust in the Senate, and therefore perceive it as less corrupt and inefficient? That is, would non-partisan candidates be more likely to reduce actual corruption or merely perceptions of corruption?

    • I think there are several answers to your question. First and foremost, I think it depends on what Prime Minister-elect Trudeau and the Liberals choose to emphasize. If their criteria includes not only non-partisanship but a focus on choosing candidates of high integrity, that could be a major step towards solving the problem.

      The question about non-partisans as a whole being more honest isn’t as obvious to me. Because some of the improperly labeled spending was party-related, I think almost by definition that kind of corruption will go down with genuinely non-partisan appointments. As I note, I also think perceptions of corruption will decline if, as the Liberal party believes, non-partisans will be more effective Senators.

      While this didn’t make it into the post for space constraints, I do think there are reasons to temper optimism associated with non-partisan appointments. I personally think they will lead to a more effective Senate overall, but the UK experience complicates the picture. For example, studies of the appointed UK House of Lords suggest that non-partisan members are less likely to attend votes than the partisan members.

  3. Fascinating post (and, although I can’t speak from experience, I am certain much more enjoyable than ice-cold Camembert with broken crackers). In the end, I wonder if Canada might get more than it bargained for in making merit a key criterion for appointing Senators. Perhaps I am being cynical, but I find it hard to believe that “political hacks, fundraisers, and failed candidates” will disappear from the Canadian political scene if the appointment process for the Senate gets reformed.

    Sadly, party leaders are still likely to be expected to find plum political appointments for party supporters as a way to thank them for their efforts. I do not know enough about the structure of Canadian government to know where such a person might be appointed if not the Senate, but it might be worth considering whether the unintended consequences of reforming the Senate-appointment process in Canada are worse than the harm to be avoided.

    • Your point is a very interesting one, Nathan, and one that puts me a bit out of my depth with Canadian politics. I know there’s a perception in the US that party hacks are often given plumb ambassadorships as reward for their efforts. Perhaps that’s where they would be headed?

      Who knows, maybe the food on the long flights to Caribbean islands and small European countries is better?

      • Interesting point. To the extent that those political appointments that leaders do find are less visible than Canadian Senate seats, I wonder if this would be have better or worse ramifications for corruption. I’d similarly be curious to know what you think about whether it’d be better or worse to have such positions be those which hold more or less power. I can see arguments on both sides (for instance, my instinct that it’d be better if the positions are those with less power, but can also see why that might be worse for transparency and possibly for corruption in the long run) and think they would be relevant in determining, as Nathan raises, whether the unintended consequences of reforming the appointment process are worse than the harm to be avoided.

  4. Great post but I think you may be overstating the effectiveness of the UK oversight system. The position of Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards was created in 1995 to police MP’s ethics but the several holders of the office have either been forced out for being too aggressive or panned for being lapdogs by advocacy groups or the press. See the Wikipedia entry for a summary of the critiques.

    It may be too much to expect of a legislative body that it would willingly hand members’ fate over to a person or entity it doesn’t control. I have been on the watch for years for a successful example, hence my interest in the U.K. experiment, but have found no legislature which has surrendered the power to discipline members for ethics violations to a genuinely independent entity. (Any reader with an example I have overlooked, do let me know.) Legislators’ long-term interests run counter to any such arrangement. Nor is their opposition always simple self-interest. As Bruce Cain argues in Democracy More Or Less, non-partisan enforcement types treat legitimate political “deals” as corrupt, his best example is the “Brown saga” summarized in my December 24, 2014, post on the book,

    Perhaps the only solution is to ensure legislators’ immunity is circumscribed enough that prosecutors can investigate and charge them if they violate criminal statutes, something happening to New York State legislators thanks to an aggressive federal prosecutor and nicely summarized on the front page of the November 2, 2015, New York Times.

    • Rick, your point is well taken and appreciated. However, I think you’ve construed my prescription more broadly than I intended. While I’ve used some admittedly broad brush language about Senate integrity, I’d largely intended to limit my proposals to Senator expenses/allowances. You’re criticism may still stand, but I think some clarification is needed.

      As I am sure you know, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards (PSC) is different than the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA). The former is an independent Commissioner within the House of Commons who investigates MPs compliance with their internal Code of Conduct. That Code of Conduct not only includes appropriate use of Parliamentary funds, but also prevents MPs from taking bribes, from misusing confidential information, and from having inappropriate conflicts of interest. My understanding is that the IPSA has a much narrower purview. It sits completely outside of the Parliament, and is responsible for administering Parliamentary funds, policing their use, and controlling MPs salaries. The Compliance Officer who does investigations for the IPSA is limited to looking at misuses money disbursed through their allowances scheme and for reevaluating claims that may have been erroneously denied.

      I had only intended to advocate for the adoption of the latter and not the former. I don’t have strong thoughts on the PSC at this point, but I know it has been subject to repeated political pressure from MPs and the expenses scandal obviously occurred while the PSC was in place.

      Do you think your criticism of the PSC translate fully to the IPSA? I see handing over authority to investigate expenditures of public money, which are often times reviewed by independent auditors in the midst of any expenses scandal, as potentially different than full-scale delegation of investigative authority for bribery, extortion, conflicts of interests, etc. Further, given the fact that the Canadian Senate is unelected and has limited political clout due to its long history of ineffectiveness, I think the its ability to “bully” an independent authority is far more limited than in the UK House of Commons.

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