A rare rebuttal from the Senate standing committee on internal economy, budgets and administration took issue Tuesday with recent media reports that suggest it is resistant to the idea of making attendance information available online.
"This simply is not true," said a statement issued by Sen. David Tkachuk, chairman of the committee. "Senate debates and journals are available online going back to 1996."
A Canadian Press story published Sunday highlighted the frustrations of a New Brunswick journalist and an open government activist that resulted from their efforts to glean attendance information from the Senate.
In its response, which was distributed via the Senate's Twitter account, the committee said the upper house is "the only legislative house in Canada that has kept and published attendance records since 1867."
"This is hardly an effort to hide this information, as two individuals quoted in the article maintain," Tkachuk wrote.
He went on to say that the committee is providing as much information as possible on a range of issues, including annual activity reports, quarterly expense reports from senators, reports on high-value contracts and audited financial statements.
As far as online access is concerned, Tkachuk pointed to a recent major redesign of the committee's websites, "specifically to make them easier to find, navigate and search."
Pascal Raiche-Nogue, a reporter for Moncton's weekly newspaper L'Etoile, was told that he'd have to travel to Ottawa in order to look through the Senate attendance register to find out how often senators from New Brunswick showed up for work.
The register is currently housed in thick red binders containing forms filed monthly by each senator.
Developed in 1998 following the scandal around truant Liberal Andrew Thompson, critics say the register remains stubbornly stuck in pre-Internet times. The Senate website offers no information on how to access the registry or even where it is, although communications staff are helpful when one does arrive to take a peek in the downtown office building.
Figuring out a way to make those records more accessible is something the committee is looking at, said Tkachuk.
The committee has been asked to review the senate's rules on attendance.
"This would include the question of how to access attendance records and related information," Tkachuk said. The committee will ask the Senate to approve of any changes it proposes in the future, he added.
Another public registry, detailing the financial and business interests of senators, has only been available four hours per weekday at the Office of the Senate Ethics Officer in Ottawa.
The Senate voted in May to make the registry public, but the office said the transition won't be complete until 2013.
As Raiche-Nogue discovered, information about the Senate can also be confusing.
On his quest to see the attendance register, he had been directed to seek out daily journals published online that list which senators were in the chamber on a given day.
But the journals do not note whether a senator was absent because of illness or because they were away on public business — two reasons that wouldn't count against their attendance duties.
Senators are fined $250 per day once they deplete a bank of 21 leave days. That bank balance is not noted in the journals either.
The Canadian Press reported last month that Conservative Sen. Patrick Brazeau had the worst attendance record of the current parliamentary session based on records filed up to April.
Updated records for May show that Liberal Sen. Romeo Dallaire has tied with Brazeau for the most days missed. Brazeau has said his absences are due to a personal matter, while Dallaire — a retired Canadian Forces lieutenant-general — puts them down to overseas research and public engagements.
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