Sober second thoughts on the Senate fiasco

According to the Senate Conflict of Interest Code, senators cannot accept gifts or other benefits except compensation authorized by law.

PM Harper must be really thanking Toronto Mayor Rob Ford right now. The buzz around allegations of a video purporting to show Ford smoking crack cocaine has sure diverted the smoke from the Senate scandal. But the Ford fiasco doesn’t lessen the importance of the red chamber runaround.

That mess swirls around an unprecedented gift of over $90,000 from PM Harper’s Chief of Staff Nigel Wright to pay off Senator Mike Duffy’s four years of invalid expense claims. No repayment needed. But you’ve got to wonder why someone with such a highly charged political position (the right-hand man of PM Harper) would think of gifting that amount of cash.

Talk about a monumental lack of judgment. Yet this guy’s no slouch. Wright is a wealthy Harvard-educated lawyer and a former policy adviser to Brian Mulroney. Did he not think this wouldn’t pass the smell test?

According to the Senate Conflict of Interest Code, senators cannot accept gifts or other benefits except compensation authorized by law. If a gift is offered it must be “as a normal expression of courtesy or protocol or within the customary standards of hospitality”. If any gift, or any accumulation of gifts, in a 12-month period exceed $500 full details must be filed with the Senate Ethics Officer.

This all blew up last June when Auditor General Michael Ferguson recommended that the Senate require more documentation for expense claims after finding that the chamber did not have proper documentation to support some  living expense claims. In February, the Senate hired outside auditor Deloitte to examine the residency claims of  Senators Mike Duffy, Patrick Brazeau (who was forced out of the Senate pending sexual assault charges), and Mac Harb. Senator Pamela Wallin’s expense claims also came under the microscope. Then this month in a domino effect Duffy quit the Conservative caucus, Wallin recused herself from the caucus and Nigel Wright resigned his post, saying he had not told PM Harper of his actions to pay Duffy’s expenses.

It seems almost incredible that Harper did not know what was going on in his own office. He might have expected Wright to take care of the issue – or oversee it – but not to the extent of cutting a personal cheque.

This has to put Harper’s own credibility on the line underscoring a seeming mismanagement of the escalating political crisis as public criticism rained down from caucus and cabinet members. His first reference to it publicly was during a trade mission to Peru at the end of last week.

Politicians must be held to a higher standard and level of transparency. OK, so that’s naive.

A pile-up of mistakes has been made here. After all, it can’t be that hard to fill in an expense claim form. There are usually 105 senators in the chamber (five of them represent British Columbia) and they don’t all have math challenges.

Most likely those senators are as frustrated with this crisis as everyone else. Just as Marjory LeBreton, government leader in the Senate, called for stricter senate expense rules, the RCMP wants to examine the expense documents to see if there are grounds for a criminal investigation. Meanwhile the audit committee is looking at the expenses for a second time.

The fallout from this mess is the accountability factor. Ultimately there have to be consequences for the enormity of this mess.

Senators live in a secluded world and do valued work overseeing every Bill that comes through the House of Commons. As Canada’s first Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald promised, the Senate will provide sober second thought on the laws of the country.

No doubt Senator Duffy is having sober second thoughts of his own right now.

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