What do senators do? Finding out proves difficult, if not impossible
For months, headlines about the Senate have been dominated by alleged spending irregularities of four senators: Conservative appointees Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, Patrick Brazeau and recently retired Liberal Mac Harb.
Their actions threw the spotlight on the Senate as an institution.
When we began to do research for W5’s report on the Senate, one of the questions we asked ourselves was: “What do senators do?”
We started by looking at how many days the Senate was sitting. That was easy to research.
As of September 2013 the Senate has been in session for a grand total of 49 days. In 2012 it sat for 88 days. So what else did your senators do to earn their base salary of about $135,000 a year?
The meat and potatoes of Senate work is done in 19 permanent committees and two joint Senate–House of Commons committees. Senators have multiple Committee assignments.
When Parliament is in session, these committees meet to consider government business and to study public policy issues.
So far in 2013 they have produced a total of 17 special study reports.
To be fair, senators continue to work when Parliament is not in session, and the Senate is not sitting.
For example, they monitor issues affecting their committee assignments, work on other legislative initiatives, prepare for the coming session of Parliament and manage their offices in Ottawa. Many have other parliamentary duties that require travel as part of their assignments.
But as the summer holiday period drew to a close, we wanted to know what public appearances senators took on for the month of September.
There does not seem to be any one place to learn about the public activities of your senators. Some do maintain web pages and Facebook pages but a review of those did not help us get many details on what public events senators were taking on and when and where they were.
So we called the office of each Senator and asked for a list of appearances. If no one answered the phone we left a message.
In all cases we followed up that initial call with an email asking for a list of public appearances in the month of September. A week later we sent a second email repeating our request.
There are currently 99 sitting senators and six vacancies.
Here are the results:
The Conservative Party has 60 senators, 33 responded. Of these:
- four said they had no public appearances
- 16 refused to provide any details
- 13 provided some information about their public appearances
- 27 ignored our request completely.
Saskatchewan Sen. Denise Batters’ office did respond to our request. Her policy advisor, Lana Fawcett Helman wrote us: “As I’m sure you can appreciate, we don’t release Sen. Batters’ schedule publicly for security reasons. When events occur to which the media is invited, a media advisory would be issued in advance.”
We wrote back asking to be added to Sen. Batter’s media list. That is the last we heard from Batters’ office.
Another Conservative senator took a very different approach. Ontario Sen. Nicole Eaton was the most transparent of all 99 senators. Eaton shared her complete agenda including all her appearances and her vacation dates.
The Liberal Party has 33 senators, 30 responded. Of these:
- two had no public appearances
- 13 refused to provide any details
- 15 did share at least some details about their appearances.
- Three ignored our request completely.
Liberal Sen. Larry Campbell’s office responded to our request. His executive assistant, Pam Ross, wrote W5 that she wouldn’t share the schedule in advance. “Once the month is behind us, I would be pleased to share his schedule with you.”
We followed up with another email asking for his appearances in advance. Sen. Campbell mistakenly sent an email apparently intended for Ross directly to W5. Campbell wrote, “I really don’t care about his deadline.”
Other Liberal senators did share their list of appearances. One was Toronto Sen. Art Eggleton who agreed to let a W5 crew follow him to a conference in Toronto about cities.
Similarly, we were able to follow Sen. Mobina Jaffer (Liberal, British Columbia) to a meeting on AIDS in Africa, held in Vancouver. We also taped Sen. Hugh Segal (Conservative, Kingston-Frontenac-Leeds, Ontario) speaking to an international union in Toronto. Both Sen. Jaffer and Segal also agreed to be interviewed for our story.
There are also six Independent senators. Patrick Brazeau, Pamela Wallin and Mike Duffy were all appointed as Conservatives but have left the Conservative caucus while their expense claims are being investigated.
Brazeau and Wallin ignored W5’s request for a list of public appearance. Duffy did answer, telling us: “I am not in the habit of releasing my plans in advance and don’t plan to start.”
Not one of the Independent senators shared their agenda with W5.
For Canadian senators, transparency seems to have a long way to go. Television cameras are still not allowed in the Senate chamber.
And after months of headlines about them, 65 of your senators, almost two-thirds, chose to keep their activities for the month of September a secret.