Despite approving a record high of $1.8 million for Senate committees to travel, a group of senators decided Thursday to send a strong message to their colleagues by squashing a scaled-down request by the National Security and Defence committee to allow two senators to visit Kabul.
Before they did that, however, senators on the committee on Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration were gripped by a discussion on whether Senate security guards should wear their bulletproof vests outside or inside their clothing.
Conservative Sen. Terry Stratton told his colleagues Senate guards should be forced to wear their soft body armor inside their shirts just like the House of Commons guards.
"It makes the Senate look like an armed fortress," he said of the visible vests.
Stratton's interjection occurred as a Senate administrator was requesting permission to open to tender a $100,000 contract for Senate security staff uniforms.
Only 15 guards have been given approval, on a pilot-project basis, to wear their vests over their clothes, the Senate staff in charge of the plan told Stratton.
"They have been wearing them inside their shirts for two or three years," he said, adding that Stratton's comment was the first complaint he had heard against the new measure.
Liberal Senator Jane Cordy said she had heard the opposite, that the vests were "quite uncomfortable during the summer."
But Stratton would not back down. "We are starting to look like an armed camp," he said.
"I just feel safe," Liberal Sen. Jim Munson quipped.
The main part of this powerful administrative committee's public meeting dealt with a request by the National Security and Defence committee to spend more cash to travel to Kabul.
The committee had originally requested $231,650 for a two-day visit to study the Canadian Forces training mission in Afghanistan, but after security concerns and travel costs were considered, a subcommittee on spending suggested only two senators should go, reducing the cost to $45,210.
That subcommittee also denied a request by the Defence committee, which is lead by Conservative Sen. Pamela Wallin, for more funds to go to Washington D.C. -- noting the committee had already travelled there early this year.
Liberal senator George Furey was the first to raise concerns about the committee's spending -- it has received $137,318 for travel this fiscal year alone -- and Conservative senators almost unanimously agreed with him.
Conservative Sen. Elizabeth Marshall said she had a "problem" with the spending.
"We are in a period of fiscal restraint and we are going in the wrong direction, we are increasing our expenditures," she told her colleagues.
The Senate approved $1.8 million for individual committees to travel this year, a new high despite the fact that overall Senate administration costs are being slowly reduced.
By October 27, the internal economy committee had already approved $1,629,440 in travel expenses -- despite initially approving a $1.25 million cap on that spending.
Conservative Sen. Carolyn Stewart Olsen pointed out that Wallin, the committee's chair, had just returned from Kabul.
"Could she not do a report to her committee?," Stewart Olsen asked.
Stewart Olsen said she felt the Canadian Forces members serving there should not be "burdened" by two senators "traipsing around Kabul."
Liberal Sen. Larry Campbell said Wallin's committee was all over the map with its spending and wasn't focused enough in its mandate, requesting cash for studies on a whole range of topics.
"At some point, we are going to have to bring this committee under control," he said.
Conservative Sen. Gerald Comeau noted Wallin's committee planed to report on no less than eight seemingly unrelated topics, including arctic sovereignty, the reserves, naval bases, relations with the United States, defence and security issues relating to Iraq, the Canadian mission to Libya, cyber-security and the training mission in Afghanistan -- an agenda that the Senate as a whole had agreed to.
Liberal senator Joe Day said the cost of sending two people, de facto Wallin and her vice-chair, was not justified because it would not be helpful to the credibility of the committee's report. A larger cross-section of views was needed, Day argued.
"So it's a whole bunch or none?" Conservative Senator David Tkachuk, the chair of the internal economy committee asked.
DND had informed the Senate committee they could accommodate up to six senators.
Conservative Sen. Consiglio Di Nino suggested Canada hasn't been participating in the training effort long enough for senators to make a judgment call on their research trip, so the committee, he said, should be encouraged to make a request to travel during the next fiscal year instead.
The discussion sounded like it had reached a consensus, so without a vote but with a vocal majority of support, the 14-members of the Senate's internal economy committee vetoed Wallin's plans to return to Afghanistan.