No sign of promised review of Senate attendance rules
An overview of a ceremony in the Senate is seen on Thursday, Nov. 24, 2011. (The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld)
Jennifer Ditchburn, The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, February 13, 2013 6:37AM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, February 13, 2013 10:26PM EST
OTTAWA - A review of the rules for Senate attendance appears to be on the backburner, six months after the Conservatives promised action on absenteeism.
The issue arose last July when The Canadian Press revealed that the youngest senator -- Conservative Patrick Brazeau -- had the worst attendance of the parliamentary session, missing both committee meetings and chamber sittings.
The committee on internal economy -- the same one that has now embarked on an audit of housing allowances -- was asked to take on the study at the request of Conservative Senate Leader Marjory LeBreton.
A Senate spokeswoman said committee staff have been busy reviewing rules, policies, records and media reports.
But she said they haven't reported back to the senators, and there is no set time frame for their report.
The chair the of the committee also suggested the attendance-rule review is not a high priority.
"I have other things on my mind. ... That is the least of my issues," David Tkachuk said last week.
The Senate voted to place Brazeau on a leave of absence Tuesday, after he was charged last week with assault and sexual assault in Gatineau, Que.
Liberal Sen. Romeo Dallaire has since surpassed Brazeau for the highest absenteeism, having exhausted all 21 of his free leave days set aside "primarily" for family illnesses, funerals and religious holidays.
Public business outside the chamber and sick days do not eat into the 21 leave days allowed each parliamentary session. The Senate sat 132 days between June 2011 and December 2012.
Dallaire said he fully expects $250 will be deducted from his next pay because he spent his 22nd day away from the Senate at the United Nations, advising on how troops should cope with child soldiers they encounter in Mali.
The former army lieutenant general has spent the other days doing research with Halifax's Dalhousie University on child soldiers, delivering speeches and travelling to Africa. He said he's careful about not declaring that Senate business.
"If I'm doing lieutenant general stuff which is conflict resolution, leadership, child soldiers, that's outside," said Dallaire. "I've been hedging my bets, and if I'm in doubt, the hell with it, I'll take a day. That's the way they taught us (at National Defence). I'm just using that day."
Brazeau and Liberal Serge Joyal are a close second to Dallaire, each having missed 19 days out of 21.
Brazeau had chalked up his absences last year to personal matters. Joyal said he has been attending conferences in France with the organization Institut des Ameriques and working on a book about Senate reform and the Constitution.
Other senators who have used up a significant proportion of their leave bank include Liberal Paul Massicotte (16 days) and Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointees Pamela Wallin, David Braley and Bert Brown (each 15 days).
Brown, who has had high attendance in the past, has been helping his wife Alice through a serious illness.
"He's a guy who works very hard, and I know being present in the chamber is important to him," said assistant John Watson. "It's been a traumatic session for him."
Wallin's office noted the days are "primarily" for family illnesses, funerals and religious holidays.
"Sen. Wallin has been dealing with several family issues and therefore has broken no rules. Absence — up to a certain limit — is permitted," said her assistant Mark Fisher.
"To suggest these absences amount to poor attendance, or to compare among senators as to who has been more or less absent within the permitted number of days, does not reflect the spirit of the policy which allows for personal leave to deal with family or other personal matters."
Last year, LeBreton made it clear that she wanted more scrutiny of the rationale given for absences. Senators are currently not required to specify why they are taking a leave day.
"It's just not enough to say personal circumstances, there should be reasons given," LeBreton told CBC radio last summer.
Massicotte's office said in an email that the senator's absences were for personal reasons, and had no further comment.
Braley's office did not respond to requests for comment.
Many senators did not used a single leave day 132 days (as of December) into the parliamentary session. They are Conservatives Diane Bellemare, Claude Carignan, Tobias Enverga, Doug Finley, Beth Marshall, Don Meredith, Thanh Hai Ngo, Judith Seidman and John Wallace; Liberals Catherine Callbeck, Percy Downe, Jim Munson, Pierrette Ringuette and Claudette Tardif; and independent Anne Cools.
The accessibility of the Senate attendance register itself was supposed to be part of the committee's study.
The register is located inside big red binders at a downtown Ottawa office building. If a member of the public wants to view it, they must travel to that location during business hours.