In Defence of Parliament
As I watch the frenzied, over-the-top media coverage of the supposed Senate scandal, I’m reminded of the famous Will Rogers adage. “All I know is just what I read in the papers, and that’s an alibi for my ignorance.” Lost in this mass media morass is balance and proportionality. There must be a recognition that while the Senate has some issues, Canada has also greatly benefited from the service of numerous senators, past and present, who have had distinguished careers as parliamentarians. Senator Eugene Forsey, the renowned intellectual and constitutional expert, Allan MacEachen or Pat Carney all spent years contributing to public service. There is Senator Michael Kirby whose groundbreaking work on mental health revolutionized mental health treatment for all Canadians. Serge Joyal is another senator who has greatly contributed to constitutional and democratic reform issues.
Ask anyone from the Inuit community and you will hear nothing but respect for Senator Willie Adams, who retired after over 32 years of federal service to the Canadian Arctic. What about Ottawa’s own senator, the globally respected and renowned heart surgeon Dr. Wilbert Keon? These parliamentarians have made great contributions to the public interest in Canada and their service should be lauded rather than shamed. There is much more that is good about the Senate than is bad. It is true that there was a need for expense reform within the Red Chamber. The House of Commons did so a decade ago by posting all Member of Parliament expenses online. When the actions of a few rogue senators were magnified to “crisis proportions” by some elitists in the national media, it caused the Senate itself to call in the Auditor General to clear the air.
Who would have ever thought that the actual cost of the audit would be 25 times costlier than the problematic expenses it uncovered. Auditor General Michael Ferguson, whether through ego, hubris or incompetence, owes all Canadians an explanation. He spent over $23 million of taxpayers’ dollars on the Senate audit to find $976,000 in questionable expenses. That is out of $180 million worth of expenses investigated. The Auditor General, a person tasked with protecting the integrity of public spending, deemed it reasonable to spend $23.5 million of taxpayers’ money to find out that 0.5 per cent of Senate expenses were questionable. Ferguson flagged 30 senators (23 current and seven former senators). However, 12 of these senators were reported for questionable expenses of under $11,000 which means the apparent expense scandal in the Senate involves only seven senators and a half a million dollars in total. And of those seven senators, five of them are no longer there. This means only the expenses of two sitting senators were deemed serious enough to send to the RCMP for possible investigation. The majority of the senators named in the report have very forcibly defended themselves, stating that they believed these to be simple administrative errors, or that the Senate rules, as they stood at the time, allowed the expenses. All deny personal enrichment or premeditated wrongdoing. Clearly, there is no massive fraud or crisis in Canada’s Senate. The real scandal is the Auditor General.
When questioned about his spending for this audit, Ferguson said: “It’s easy to add up what we found and to look at the cost and do that strict comparison, but I think there’s a lot more behind that to get to understanding.” However, in the words of Oscar Wilde: “It is always with the best intentions that the worst work is done.” Ironically, Ferguson uses the same justification for his spending of taxpayers’ dollars that the accused senators do for theirs. Well, if that isn’t the pot calling the kettle black. It would be good for our democracy in Canada if some sober second thought was brought back to the media coverage of our Parliamentary institutions.