What’s the deal with the Canadian Senate Scandal?

This post comes ahead of a tutorial on the Senate, part of a series on the branches of government. With the Senate expense scandal likely to remain part of the news cycle until such another major event pushes it to the back burner, I thought it important to explain what all of the fuss is about for those who aren’t familiar with the issues surrounding this parliamentary body and all the fuss with it.

The Senate is quite a source of controversy on a good day, never mind when the actions of senators make headlines. In fact, it could be argued that controversy is at the foundation of this chamber. The Senate is one of three parliamentary institutions at the federal level along with the House of Commons and the Crown as we’ve learned in previous tutorials.

The Fathers of Confederation insisted that there be an additional senior legislative body, modelled after the British House of Lords, made up of elites to keep the “commoners” of the Lower House (literally the house of the common people) in check [1]. This was to ensure no radical, under-class notions or ideas came to fruition. It’s not called the “House of Sober Second Thought” for nothing! Legislation must pass both houses of parliament at the federal level before it can receive Royal Assent to become law.

Moreover, with the seats in the House of Commons distributed on the basis of representation by population, the Senate seat distribution would ensure balance was brought to the representation of different regions of the country (the west, central Canada, the maritimes, and NL and one senator for each territory) [2].

Much like the House of Commons, the Senate is divided into two sides: government and opposition. Senators will be appointed to represent a party. Usually an appointee belongs to the same party as the sitting prime minister, but this is not always the case.

One of the most enduring criticisms of this Upper House of Parliament is that it is an unelected body, and so has been called undemocratic and a house of patronage. Senators are appointed by the governor-general on the advice of the prime minister. A prime minister often uses the appointments to promote party insiders or partisans, people who have served the prime minister or the prime minister’s party faithfully and well: party fundraisers, campaign workers, party donors, former party electoral candidates and so forth. It certainly throws a cloud of suspicion onto the work of this institutional body. Sometimes appointees are less controversial in that they have served our country in some way, appointed based on merit and so are given this plump position. The appointment of retired Lt. General Romeo Dallaire comes to mind.

Mr. Harper is not the first prime minister to make partisan appointments. However, the Conservative party railed against the appointed Senate when in opposition and they have promised to reform the Senate [3], particularly to make it more democratic by introducing elections. Mr. Harper has appointed a few western senators who were elected, but there have been others such as Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, Marc Harb and Patrick Brazeau who were appointed without an election (because the provinces from which these senators come have no mechanism in place provincially to elect senators.). The federal government currently has a Reference case before the Supreme Court of Canada, which asks some important questions about the viability of the Conservative’s Senate reform proposals (but that is a subject we will take up another time).

Despite its faults, the Senate does good work (most of the time) as we shall see in an upcoming tutorial. Oddly, despite the partisan nature of the Senate, the House of Commons, with its televised broadcasts and the resulting sound bites (30 second summaries used by the media to frame an issue however rightly or wrongly), arguably makes close and thoughtful study of issues more difficult as parties are in a constant state of one-upmanship, trying to out do or discredit the other parties. Away from the spotlight (at least most of the time) senators are able to study issues more closely and with more scrutiny then their Commons colleagues. Standing Committee reports out of the Senate, for example, have been useful tools and resources for policy development and investigative initiatives [4].

Nevertheless, that work is overshadowed by scandalous events such as we have seen in the past months and which continue to plague Mr. Harper’s government. In brief, the current expense scandal pertains to the residency claims of Senators Patrick Brazeau, Pamela Wallin, Mike Duffy and former Senator Marc Harb.

According to Section 23.5 of the Constitution Act, 1867, Senators must be a resident of the province which he or she is appointed to represent (as an aside, there is an interesting column in the National Post about the residency requirement and a timeline of the Scandal is available from Global News). The Senate Standing Committee on Internal Economy, Budget and Administration creates the procedures and policies for housing allowances and expense claims such as reimbursement for senators whose homes are 100km away from the National Capital Region (Ottawa and surrounding areas) [5].

The situation with each of these senators is outlined briefly below:

Patrick Brazeau: besides his inappropriate residency claims, Senator Brazeau also has been criminally charged with assault and sexual assault and stands suspended from the Senate and has been removed from the Conservative caucus meaning that if he was to return to his duties, he would sit as an independent member. Though he claimed to live in Maniwaki 135 km from Ottawa (which would allow him to claim an allowance) Brazeau rented a home in Gatineau, which the RCMP have said is his primary residence.

Pamela Wallin: Representing Saskatchewan, Senator Wallen has homes in Ottawa, Toronto and Saskatchewan. She has made inappropriate housing allowance claims and travel expenses including to events and activities not part of regular Senate business including some as part of her work for corporate boards. Wallin sits as an independent senator having been removed from Conservative caucus.

Marc Harb: Mr. Harb has resigned as senator and is in the process of repaying his inappropriately claimed housing and living expenses.

Mike Duffy: Representing Prince Edward Island, documents show that Duffy’s primary residence is Ottawa – a hold over from his time as a journalist covering Parliament Hill. Senator Duffy made inappropriate housing allowance claiming his primary residence was in Cavendish, PEI. Moreover, he made expense claims for fundraising and campaign events on behalf of his party. Further, the Prime Minister’s former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, became involved in this affair when he wrote a personal cheque for $90,000 for Duffy to repay his expenses, which Duffy then claimed came from his own pocket.


[1] Dyck, Rand (2012). Canadian Politics: Critical Approaches (5th ed.). Toronto, Ontario: Nelson Education. p.28; Ajzenstat, Janice. “Bicameralism and Canada’s Founders: The Origins of the Canadian Senate.” Ed. Serge Joyal. Protecting Canadian Democracy: The Senate You Never Knew. Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003. 10; Ajzenstat, Janice, and et al. Canada’s Founding Debates. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003. note 83.

[2] Ajzenstat in Joyal, p.14

[3] Conservative Party of Canada, . “Conservative Party Platform 2011 – Here for Canada.” Conservative Party of Canada, n.d. Web. 9 Sep 2013. http://www.conservative.ca/media/2012/06/ConservativePlatform2011_ENs.pdf

[4] Franks, C.E.S. “The Canadian Senate in Modern Times.” Ed. Serge Joyal. Protecting Canadian Democracy: The Senate You Never Knew. Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003. 177

[5] Senate of Canada. Canada. Standing Committee on Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration. Senators’ Travel Policy. Ottawa:2012. http://www.parl.gc.ca/Content/SEN/Committee/411/ciba/rep/SenatorsTravelPolicy-e.pdf


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