POLITICS

Senate Expense Scandal: Tory Senators Speak Out About Crisis

05/22/2013 12:20 EDT | Updated 05/23/2013 02:07 EDT

OTTAWA — Several Conservative senators are calling on colleagues to do the right thing and leave the upper house if they tried to skirt the rules to line their pockets.

“Out of respect for citizens, for taxpayers and especially for the institutions, if these people here erred, they should quit the Senate,” Quebec Senator Jean-Guy Dagenais told reporters Tuesday morning.

His colleague Senator Jacques Demers went further telling the media he is in an intense period of personal reflection and unsure he wants to remain a senator any longer.

“I want to see if I’m going to stay in the Senate. I love the Senate. I learned a lot in the last four years. I came here and didn’t know anything about politics and I didn’t understand anything about the Senate,” Demers said.

But the former Montreal Canadiens head coach said he and many of his colleagues, who work hard and lead honest lives, feel they are being painted with the same brush as certain senators accused of expensing thousands in inappropriate housing claims. It’s like if ninety-five per cent of senators are carrying the blame for what’s going on with five rotten apples, Demers suggested.

“There are so many lies flying around that I am sick. I wish people would just speak the truth. And if people lose their jobs because of it, so be it,” Demers said.

Quebecers and other Canadians who get up every morning and don’t know where their next meal will come from don’t need cheats in Ottawa, he suggested.

“It’s cheating. The $16 orange juice. Things like that are simply incredible. We are senators. We are proud to be senators, most of us were appointed because of something else we had accomplished something good in a our lives, and now we are placed in an exceptional position, we work 100 days a year, we are well paid, and now we’re going to go and enrich ourselves in inappropriate ways? It’s unacceptable for me,” he said.

Without pointing the finger at embattled senators Mike Duffy, Patrick Brazeau, Mac Harb and Pamela Wallin, Demers suggested that if some senators are guilty of what it is speculated that they have done, they should not only be turfed from caucus but “they should be fired.”

“You do not take money away (from taxpayers). If that’s the case, they should be gone, fired and forgotten,” he said.

Senator Nancy Greene Raine told Kamloops This Week Tuesday that she would step down if faced with the same allegations as Duffy.

"Personally, if it was me, I would resign," Raine is quoted saying.

Ontario Conservative Senator Bob Runciman, another Harper-appointee, told HuffPost the allegations are damaging to the Senate as an institution and its “current occupants.”

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In addressing his caucus Tuesday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said: "I’m not happy, I’m very upset about some conduct we have witnessed — the conduct of some parliamentarians and the conduct of my own office."

Harper’s former chief of staff Nigel Wright is alleged to have given Duffy $90,000 to pay his debt to taxpayers in exchange for his silence and a promise that other Tory senators would “go easy” on him during a report on his questionable expenses.

Although Harper did not respond to the allegations directly, he urged senators and MPs to leave his caucus if they intended to use public office for their own benefit. He booted Duffy and Wallin last week. Wright resigned on Sunday saying he did not inform the Prime Minister “of the means by which” he paid Duffy’s tab to taxpayers.

“I did not get into politics to defend the Senate,” Harper said Tuesday, noting that his government had put Senate reform on the national agenda. When Harper tried to push that agenda through, however, his own senators — including many of the 57 he appointed since taking office in 2006 — balked at the Senate term limits and the election process. Faced with a review of its legislation in Quebec’s Court of Appeal, Harper decided to refer his reforms as well as the question of abolishing the Senate to the Supreme Court earlier this year.

“The Senate status quo is not acceptable. Canadians want the Senate to change,” Harper said Tuesday, adding that Canadians were asking the government to accelerate its efforts.

Runciman told HuffPost he thought the current situation might encourage the Supreme Court to “expedite their review,” confirm the difficulty or impossibility of abolition and provide a “clear road map” for governments to move towards timely and effective reform.”

Conservative Senator Hugh Segal suggested the upper chamber was facing a legitimacy crisis and a referendum on abolishing or reforming the Senate might be needed.

“(T)here has never been any democratic validation of the Senate in 145 years,” Segal wrote in an email to HuffPost.

So far, the Harper government’s approach in dealing with the crisis in the Senate and opposition party allegations that fraud may have taken place has been to revamp the upper chamber’s rules governing travel and living expenses.

Liberal Senator Colin Kenny wrote an op-ed in The Huffington Post Canada suggesting the new rules were punishing senators who actually use travel points to work and do not to abuse the system.

Kenny said he uses his travel points to meet with cops, judges, soldiers, educators, and customs officials on the front-line who don’t shy away from telling an opposition politician what’s really going on on the ground.

“Rather than confine senators to the Ottawa beltway — where government mouthpieces won't tell you anything that hasn't been vetted by a 20-something political aide in the prime minister's office — I believe the Senate should make travel and everything connected to travel more transparent,” he wrote.

The new rules, tabled in a report on May 9, will curb travel drastically by limiting a senator to a maximum of 12 trips annually (less depending on the distance and itinerary) taken outside a senator’s home province.

Senators will have to reveal the purpose of each trip but still won’t have to say who they are meeting with. Travel claims, such as mileage or taxis, will also, now, have to be backed up with records and receipts.

The Senate will also delete a rule that essentially stated senators were beyond reproach unless a majority of their colleagues thought they were acting improperly. The “honour” system — which the chair of the Internal Economy committee, Conservative Sen. David Tkachuk so fiercely defended just two years ago during damning audit that recommended senators not sign off on their own expenses — will now be eliminated.

Senators who claim a primary residence outside of Ottawa will have to show a provincial driver’s licence, health card and income tax forms to prove their residency outside the National Capital Region — rather than just say their primary residence is more than 100 kilometres away from the Senate.

New rules will also restrict a senator’s designated traveler to their spouse or partner and stipulate that person has to be travelling with the senator to enjoy the travel points.

The new rules won’t prevent cheating but the Senate needs to adopt them to deal with the current public outcry, one senator told HuffPost.

“None of it is going to stop anyone from cheating. None of it will,” the senator said. “If someone wants to file a false declaration, it’s only after a while that finance will notice it — if they see a pattern.”

The Liberal leader in the Senate James Cowan told his colleagues Tuesday evening that Canadians have not shied away from using colourful language to publicly express what they think of the Senate and senators.

“We cannot ignore them,” Cowan said. “It is critically important to re‑establish the confidence of Canadians in their public institutions.”