OTTAWA — Senators should have all their travel and hospitality expenses posted online for everyone to see, says Conservative Senate leader Marjory LeBreton.
LeBreton told reporters Tuesday she believes unelected senators should be subject to the same rules as cabinet ministers and other public office holders when it comes to expenses.
“I always felt that senators being appointed should be subjected to the public office holder category more than the House of Commons on the elected side,” she said.
Cabinet ministers, their ministerial staff and top bureaucrats must publicly report all their hospitality and travel expenses online. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, for example, posts the total costs of all his trips, from what he charged taxpayers for meals and incidentals to the price tag for airfare and hotel stays. Public office holders do not have to post receipts, only total sums in each category per trip.
LeBreton said she doesn't think the same level of transparency is necessary for members of the House of Commons because they are elected and accountable to their constituents.
But former Liberal MP Michelle Simson believes nothing short of full disclosure in both chambers of Parliament is enough.
“I would like to see full, absolute disclosure of every penny that an MP or senator spends,” Simson said.
“These kind of changes may indeed change the culture and the thinking,” she said, explaining that if all receipts are posted online senators and MPs may think twice about staying in a fancy hotel or eating in a pricier restaurant.
“What’s wrong with total transparency and (having) it online so Canadians can check?,” Simson asked.
Outspoken Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber isn’t sure about posting all receipts online but believes taxpayers deserve to know how their MPs spend their money and would support a plan to include all members of Parliament under the proactive disclosure regime.
“If anything good comes out of this series of events...(it) is that the public will demand a greater degree of transparency and accountability from both its elected parliamentarians and its appointed parliamentarians in the Senate,” he told HuffPost.
The Senate is currently facing a public backlash after revelations that four senators — Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, Patrick Brazeau and Mac Harb — expensed tens of thousands of dollars in ineligible living or travel expenses. Duffy’s $90,000 expense tab was paid by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s then-chief of staff Nigel Wright, who according to a CTV news report, ensured a Senate committee report critical of the popular Conservative senator and fundraiser was whitewashed. The Duffy-Wright affair is the subject of an ethics probe and a review by the RCMP.
LeBreton said over the past several weeks she’s received hundreds of emails from Canadians telling her the Senate is not suited to investigate itself.
She moved a motion Tuesday asking that the upper chamber invite the auditor general of Canada to “conduct a comprehensive audit of Senate expenses, including senator’s expenses.” It will be debated Wednesday.
“(I) came to the conclusion that the only way to satisfy Canadians that their taxpayers dollars are well spent in the Senate would be to put down a motion in the Senate asking that the auditor general look at all Senate expenses,” LeBreton told reporters.
The Senate was investigated by the Auditor General Michael Ferguson last year — but he was not allowed to look at each senators’ individual expenses. He only performed a spot audit. The same type of audit was also done for the House of Commons and MPs’ expenses. Neither side received glowing marks.
But now, LeBreton believes only the Senate is worth investigating again.
“I’ve always felt that the Senate was a bit different than the House of Commons because the House of Commons actually do have accountability — it’s called an election,” she said.
Simson, who posted all her expenses online when she was a member of Parliament and has often spoken out about the shunning she received by her peers for doing so, believes the same audit should be done in the House.
“They face the same challenges: residency, scandal in terms of living allowances — that was in the House of Commons a couple of years ago and now we are seeing it in the Senate,” she said. “I don’t understand why we would differentiate.”
James Cowan, the Liberal leader in the Senate, told HuffPost on Monday he supports a full audit of the upper chamber but believes a similar audit should occur in the House.
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau is expected to propose new measures for increased transparency in both chambers Wednesday.
NDP House leader Nathan Cullen told HuffPost he doesn’t believe a new audit of the House is needed and his party is looking at ways to increase transparency without adding a new layer of bureaucracy to handle proactive disclosure requirements.
“We are going to work with the other parties and see what would actually work for the House of Commons and work for the accountability for Canadians,” Cullen said. “We are quite sincere about and have been for a number of years...(but) in terms of a timeline, I don’t have one for you right now."
In response to the Senate crisis, the NDP plans to table a motion in the House Wednesday that would cease funding to the upper chamber on July 1.
Conservatives and Liberals are unlikely to support the move — which some observers believe would be unconstitutional without the support of the provinces.
On Tuesday, LeBreton said a more fulsome audit of the Senate was needed because the previous spot audit was not a comprehensive review of all senators’ expenses and there was “some doubt” that many of the auditor general’s recommendations were not acted upon.
“He did highlight some expense claim difficulties in tracking expenses and I have seen no evidence that those things were addressed,” she said.
LeBreton called for every senator’s expenses to be scrutinized before clarifying that it would be up to Ferguson to determine just what he wants to study.
“The auditor general can decide where he wants to go,” she said.
If his audit finds more damning problems, LeBreton said her colleagues will have to answer for their behaviour.
“People will have to live with the consequences of their own actions and in an institution like the Senate, they will have to answer for themselves,” she said.
“If there were problems in the past I’m going to make absolutely sure they aren’t repeated in the future.”