Senate reform still on the agenda, Tory House Leader says
Published Sunday, February 10, 2013 11:03AM EST
Last Updated Sunday, February 10, 2013 12:27PM EST
After a tumultuous week for Canada’s Upper House that saw an external audit ordered for three senators and the ousting of Sen. Patrick Brazeau from the Conservative caucus, the government will continue to push for Senate reform, says House Leader and Tory MP Peter Van Loan.
Van Loan told CTV’s Question Period on Sunday that the Conservatives are still hoping to modernize the Senate -- including the possibility of elected representatives -- after two incidents this week put the spotlight on members of the Red Chamber.
“Our preferred option, of course, is to reform the Senate, to make it work well,” he said Sunday. “There are good people there now; we think it could be even better if it is elected. It could become an important part of the democratic element of our country.”
Van Loan’s comments come after a tough week for the Senate.
An outside audit of the housing expenses of Senators Patrick Brazeau, Mike Duffy and Mac Harb has been ordered after questions arose about their “primary” residency claims.
Accounting firm Deloitte will review the senators’ claims about where they primarily live and the housing allowances they’ve collected for accommodations closer to Ottawa.
Senators can claim $21,000 annually in housing and meal expenses if their primary address is more than 100 kilometres from Ottawa.
Also earlier this week, Brazeau, 38, was kicked out of the Conservative caucus and charged in connection with an alleged domestic violence incident. Brazeau was appointed to the Senate in 2008, when he was 34 years old.
Van Loan said the Conservatives have made it clear that they would prefer to appoint senators that have been elected by the provinces. In the past, they have also proposed a nine-year term limit for senators.
Currently senators are appointed by the prime minister and can serve up to the age of 75.
Van Loan said the appointment process for senators is not unlike the appointment process for a number of positions for government boards, commissions and agencies.
“In the case of the Senate, you want them to actually represent communities within the country, or part of the country, and have some demonstrated record of accomplishment,” he said.
During the vetting process, a series of background checks are run on each candidate, Van Loan said. In Brazeau’s case, at the time of his appointment, he was the national chief of the Congress of Aboriginal People – a group representing the interest of Canadian aboriginals who live off-reserve.
“He was well-known in that role,” Van Loan said.
Since the outside audit was ordered, Van Loan said the Senate is taking steps to ensure that taxpayers’ money is not abused and Senate policies regarding benefits like housing allowances are being reviewed.
He added that a motion will be brought forth by the government on Tuesday to take advantage of rules that would suspend Brazeau’s ability to access Senate funds.
“That’s something that can be done once he’s been charged with a serious offence,” he said. “So that will be done to protect the taxpayers.”
Meanwhile, the government is seeking clarification from the Supreme Court on how it could proceed with potential Senate reforms. Ottawa sent questions to the Supreme Court last week, seeking answers on the reform legislation’s constitutionality, Van Loan said.
In 2008, the Conservative platform included potentially abolishing the institution, a move that would require constitutional change.
And while abolition is still talked about, Van Loan said that the hurdle required to clear that step – getting the consent of all the provinces – has always seen as a “very high hurdle to clear.”
“What we will now know is: what exactly is the test,” he said. “What do we need to amend the constitution in that fashion? The court will be able to tell us. I think that will be helpful to the overall debate on how we make the Senate work better and how we go about fixing it.”
Opposition MPs, meanwhile, held mixed views on the effectiveness of the Deloitte housing audit.
“I’m not confident that we’re going to get the results that we need,” NDP MP Megan Leslie said, adding that she doubts the Prime Minister and the government will take action if wrongdoing has been found. “I am not confident that they’re going to act on this.”
Leslie added that the NDP believes the Senate should be abolished, calling it an institution from “the dark ages.”
The biggest problem with the Senate is not the behaviour of its members, said Leslie, but rather its ability to kill bills that have been passed in the House of Commons.
“We do not need an unaccountable, unelected Senate,” she said.
Liberal MP Ralph Goodale said that in order to be effective, the results of the audit must be made publicly available and not go through any “sanitizing process.”
“It is important for the Senate to be extremely proactive on this. The credibility of the institution is at stake here,” he said.