THE BLOG

Harper Is Punishing the Wrong Senators

05/21/2013 05:23 EDT | Updated 07/21/2013 05:12 EDT
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When an institution errs, it is put to the test. Healthy institutions acknowledge their errors and rectify. Unhealthy institutions pretend to rectify.

The healthy ones often emerge stronger from these kinds of crises. The unhealthy ones almost never do.

Unlike most cartoonists, I have long considered the Senate of Canada to be a relatively healthy institution. It is certainly one giant step up on the current House of Commons. But the Senate has been tested in recent weeks, and the results have been disappointing.

Three senators are being forced to pay back housing allowances they shouldn't have accepted. A fourth senator is being audited for reasons that have yet to be made public.

With respect to the housing allowances, three senators took advantage of a rule that allowed them to designate any abode as their principal residence. All three chose places outside Ottawa - places they visited from time to time but that weren't their homes.

By anyone's definition of morality the three shouldn't have done this. But the rule said they could, so they did, and received generous housing allowances for doing so.

There are other accusations related to Senator Mike Duffy that are being investigated, but let's just take the original finding of the Senate Committee for Internal Economy that the three had pulled a fast one when it came to claiming housing allowances.

They have been asked to pay back the money, so what's my problem?

For a start, there has been no attempt on the part of the Senate to reprimand anyone for bad behaviour. There is public outrage with the "Hey, just pay back the money and life goes on" attitude that the Senate has taken. And there certainly should be.

It may not constitute criminal behaviour to apply for bogus housing allowances. But three people crossed over a moral line that a hundred other senators didn't. Doesn't that call for censure on the part of the institution that they hoodwinked?

Should they be expelled? I'm not sure. Should they be set in a corner and denied positions of leadership for a number of years? Again, I'm not sure. But you can't just sweep things like this under the rug and pretend its business as usual. Wrong is wrong, and without formal censure, the Senate becomes part of the wrong, and with the public watching, falls far short of the right.

In addition to censoring those who have erred, the Senate should develop more transparency, which is sorely lacking. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said, "Sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant." But more on that in a moment.

There is another important issue that the media seems to have overlooked. In dealing with this situation, the government has turned the concept of punishment upside down. No punishment for the housing allowance transgressors. But sweeping new rules to stymie senators involved in legitimate and valuable Senate business.

In the wake of the housing subsidy violations, the government leader in the Senate - without doubt in consultation with the prime minister's office - has come up with a proposal to place severe limits on travel for senators to places other than their home turf. There have always been limits on Senate travel. Making them more Draconian obviously has nothing to do with abuse of housing allowances. But Stephen Harper has made it clear that he doesn't like the Senate in its current incarnation, so making it less effective plays into his hand. Restricting reasonable and useful travel will certainly accomplish that.

Is the public going to get indignant that the government leader in the Senate is trying to curtail other senators' travel? Not likely. When most Canadians travel, they do it for pleasure. Travel for parliamentarians is easy to equate with boondoggling. So who cares?

Well, I do. I travel. And while I'm all for increased transparency as to who goes where, for what reason and at what cost, I have no doubt that the Senate will be turned into a much less useful institution by confining senators to their barracks.

Senators are allowed 64 travel points a year. I won't waste space here describing the regulatory details, but a trip can use up one point or sometimes more - a Senate colleague of mine is doing restorative justice work in the far north, and one recent trip cost him five points. The new rule would cut the maximum annual points for each senator to twelve. So if the senator in question takes two trips to the north, he's pretty well grounded for the rest of the year.

Why do I travel? More than a decade ago, it was to rally support around the country for my private member's bill to switch 75 percent of the federal government's fleet of vehicles to alternative fuels - natural gas, ethanol, propane and the like. The idea was to have the government play a leadership role on the environment. The bill passed - a rarity for a private member's bill. It passed because I had drummed up support across the country, and the cabinet was inundated with messages that showed Canadians cared.

I was also deeply involved in promoting federal initiatives to curb smoking among young Canadians. Again, I travelled across the country, meeting with medical officers of health, non-governmental organizations and parents' groups. As a result of our pressure, the government raised its smoking cessation budget from $5 million to $97 million. The percentage of youth who smoke in Canada declined from 22 percent in 2001 to 12 percent in 2011.

I am proud to have had at least something to do with that decline, and I think most Canadians would judge that the cost of my travel was worth it.

I was the first chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence from 2001 to 2009. The committee travelled frequently, to airports, border crossings, police detachments, fire halls, veterans' hospitals and military bases. None of these are sexy places. It was fulfilling work, but certainly not what you'd call a lot of fun.

On three occasions committee members travelled to Afghanistan to get a first hand look at how Canada's military mission was going there.

In Afghanistan, among other things, we discovered Canada's limited access to helicopters (our people had to borrow them when they could) was forcing our troops to travel by convoy most of the time, resulting in a mortality rate double that of our allies because of roadside bombs. I like to think that pressure from the committee led to the purchase of some helicopters and the deployment of other Canadian-based helicopters to Afghanistan, saving lives.

In Canada, we learned from enlisted soldiers and junior officers about lack of equipment and training and the burnout regimen being forced on military families because of lack of personnel - stuff the senior brass would never mention at committee hearings in Ottawa. We learned about crime and corruption at Canadian ports from people who worked there - stuff that port bosses would never even whisper about in Ottawa.

At one point I actually made my way onto a tarmac at Lester B. Pearson International Airport in Toronto without impediment, demonstrating the pathetic security there at the time.

We learned about these things because we travelled, and we made what we learned public when we returned in a series of reports that the media used to inform Canadians and challenge Liberal and Conservative governments alike.

I'm not chair of the Committee anymore, but I still travel and make public what I find. I meet with people who run things who are much more willing to be honest outside the chilling confines of Ottawa. I meet with cops, judges, soldiers, educators, customs officials and other Canadians, as well as editorial boards at newspapers and broadcast facilities. I talk to people in the know about defence and justice and foreign aid and many other issues. I write and speak about what I have learned.

I post the names of people I meet with on my website (colinkenny.ca). I have no reservations about revealing why I am taking a trip and with whom I have met. In 2009-10 I used up 24.5 of my 64 allotted points on trips; in 2010-11 I used 29 points; in 2011-12 I used 29.5 points; and in 2012-13 I used 19.5 points. Last year all my travel didn't cost what it costs a cabinet minister to make one flight across the country in a Challenger jet.

If the government insists on cutting this type of travel for senators to 12 points, a lot of good work isn't going to get done.

My point here is that travel is useful to people who are part of the federal decision-making process. 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.

Every trip, its cost and its purpose should be public information and contained in the quarterly expense claims senators are required to file. The posting requirements now are too vague, and not at all inclusive. Last year the Senate spent approximately $800,000 on "Parliamentary Association Travel" around the world. None of this is included in individual senators' disclosures. It should be.

In addition, every year the government puts together delegations of selected parliamentarians to visit here and there. These come under the heading of "Government Travel." Neither the travel expenses of senators who take part in these forays nor the purpose of the trips are included in the quarterly reports. They should be.

Instead of this kind of transparency - which would allow journalists and members of the public to judge for themselves whether trips are worthwhile - we get government measures to pin every senator down in Ottawa, where the government can force feed us bogus information and we can all drink each other's bathwater.

"What about videoconferencing?" you ask. Videoconferencing can be a useful money-saving device. But again, what you usually get are carefully chosen talking heads in a formal setting. You may learn something, and you may not. You're certainly not sniffing around airports to see if they're safe or barracks to see if soldiers are being properly trained.

The new restrictions, if implemented, may amount to great public relations. Let's all celebrate the clipping of senators' wings!

But meanwhile, Senator Jim Munson's efforts on behalf of the disabled and his promotion of the Special Olympics is curtailed, and Senator Romeo D'Allaire's work to end the use of child soldiers and improve the lives of veterans is stunted, and Senator Vern White's investigations into restorative justice programs in the far north comes to a standstill . . .

Why is the government doing this? To punish three guys who took housing money they shouldn't have? Or to neuter the institution that was set up to hold the people with power in the House of Commons and the Prime Minister's Office to account?

Your call.

This op-ed first appeared in the Ottawa Citizen Tuesday, May 21.

See more from Colin Kenny on his website.

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