Monday, July 14, 2014

Kick all the bums out on their ass!

Conservative, Liberal Senators have been secretly meeting monthly off the Hill to come up with ways to make the Senate more effective, transparent and responsible within the current constitutional framework, to gain Canadian' public confidence

By Abbas Rana
Monday, July 14, 2014
Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Facing its toughest expense probe, misspending scandal, and identity crisis in the Senate’s history, some Conservative and Liberal Senators—who believe the Senate leadership is not doing enough to properly handle the crisis and that Canadians have “largely written off the Senate as being irrelevant, irresponsible, and without credibility”—have been holding secret meetings off Parliament Hill in an effort to come up with concrete plans to modernize the Senate and make it more relevant.

“There’s a group of Senators who meet on a regular basis to plan motions to the Senate to try to change it. They meet to plan strategy and it covers a pretty good group of Senators. These are the senior ones, mostly. It’s a closed circle and they don’t notify the Speaker [or their respective leaderships],” a Senate source told The Hill Times.

Auditor General Michael Ferguson, who is reviewing all Senators’ expenses, including travel and office expenses, is expected to release his blockbuster report by next March.

In an effort to regain relevance and public trust, the 15 Conservative and Liberal Senators, who are feeling jittery about the Senate’s unprecedented scandal, have held four meetings since early March in meeting rooms at the Westin Hotel in downtown Ottawa, a stone’s throw from Parliament Hill, the source said.

The Senators met for about three hours over dinner in meeting rooms and all Senators paid for the room and their dinners out of their own pockets.

The Senators have discussed abolishing the Upper Chamber’s Question Period since it’s a “waste of time”; restructuring all Senate committees; ending all partisanship in the Senate; and electing the next Senate Speaker, said the Senate source. Senate Speaker Noël Kinsella (Fredericton-York-Sunbury, New Brunswick) retires in November.

The group is supposed to resume its discussions when Parliament returns in September, the source said.

Liberal Senator Paul Massicotte (De Lanaudière, Quebec), who started the group, was not available for an interview last week, but in an email to Liberal Senators in early March, he expressed concern about the poor perception of the Upper Chamber’s Parliamentary work amongst Canadians and predicted how that perception could be further exacerbated after Mr. Ferguson’s Senate expenses audit report comes out by next March with potentially more embarrassing information.

Senator Massicotte also reassured Senators that, in the opinion of most constitutional experts, it’s highly unlikely that Prime Minister Stephen Harper (Calgary Southwest, Alberta) can easily “restructure” or do away with the Senate in response to negative public reaction to its spending scandal.

“As you’re very much aware, the public has largely written off the Senate as being irrelevant, irresponsible and without credibility. Meanwhile, we still have the auditor general’s eventual audit report to deal with. Thankfully, Senate abolition is not easily doable,” wrote Sen. Massicotte in an email to Liberal Senators on March 6 and obtained by The Hill Times.

“Most constitutional experts doubt that the Prime Minister will be able to restructure the Senate in response to the public’s disenchantment with the Senate. But we are not without avail, as our own caucus has demonstrated in the last month, with significant positive changes, to allow us to become more credible and relevant to a better Canada.”

Senator Massicotte also wrote in the email that to help fix the politically damaging situation, Senators from both sides need to work together to come up with suggestions to reform the Red Chamber and urged his colleagues to join the bipartisan group that he started.

“However, many Senate reforms naturally require‎ agreement of our colleagues across the aisle. To this end, an ad-hoc group of Conservative and Liberal Senators including Senators [Dennis] Dawson, [Maria] Chaput, [George] Baker, [Stephen] Greene, [JoAnne] Buth, [Thomas] McInnis, [Larry] Smith (L) and myself) have met to discuss and agree to the potential need of important Senate reforms,” Senator Massicotte wrote in his email.

“In pursuance of such, we agreed to set-up a more formal committee to study and seek agreement to Senate reforms across party lines. Obviously, all concluding recommendations from this committee will need deliberation, approval, and support of the respective caucuses. We are seeking to expand this committee to approximately 15 [three more from our side] Senators. Please advise if you also agree with the need for important Senate reforms and wish to participate on this committee,” wrote Senator Massicotte.

Some of the Senators who, according to the source and Sen. Massicotte’s email, attended some or all of these meetings included: Conservative Senators Stephen Greene (Halifax-The Citadel, Nova Scotia), Senator John Wallace (Rothesay, New Brunswick), Senator Pierre Claude Nolin (De Salaberry, Quebec), Senator Thomas McInnis (Nova Scotia), Senator Douglas Black (Alberta), Senator Diane Bellemare (Alma, Quebec), Senator JoAnne Buth (Manitoba) and Senator Larry Smith (Quebec). The Liberal Senators who attended were: Senator Dennis Dawson (Lauzon, Quebec), Senator Massicotte, Senator George Baker (Newfoundland and Labrador), Senator Maria Chaput (Manitoba) and Senator Percy Downe (Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.).

The Hill Times contacted all of these Senators, but none, except Senator Wallace, called back. However, he declined to discuss the meetings.

“I’ve had many discussions with both Conservative and Liberal Senators in different settings. I’m not going to respond to that. All of the ideas and the solutions are not to be found on only one side of the Chamber and I’ve great respect for many of my colleagues on the other side,” said Senator Wallace, who has been conducting consultations on Senate reform in his caucus.

“I talk to them quite freely and openly about some issues, obviously confidentially, and can’t be discussed and we’ll continue to do that,” said Senator Wallace.

Senator Bellemare declined to be interviewed for this article last week, but her assistant in an email wrote to The Hill Times that her boss is working on a piece on Senate reform and will be available for an interview once it’s completed.

Meanwhile, the source said that Senators from both sides are disappointed with their respective Upper House leadership that no serious efforts have been made to make any improvements to the Senate procedure.

“The leadership in both the Liberals and the Conservatives are just not moving. They just don’t want to change what they’re used to, I guess. … It’s hard to change an organization from within,” the source said.

Senators are apparently upset that the Senate leadership has not gotten behind Senator Nolin’s motion, tabled on May 6 in the Red Chamber, calling for a Special Committee on Senate Modernization. There has been no movement since it was introduced.

Under the motion, Senator Nolin, who was appointed to the Senate by former Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and who declined to be interviewed last week, urges that Senators need to empower the committee “to make the Senate more effective, more transparent and more responsible, within the current constitutional framework, in order, in part, to increase public confidence in the Senate.”

Senator Nolin asked in the motion that the proposed committee submit its report before December 31, 2015.

In addition to Senator Nolin and Senator Wallace’s ongoing consultations with colleagues, other Senators have also been undertaking a number of initiatives to propose measures for Senate reform, including New Brunswick Liberal Senator Pierrette Ringuette, who tabled a detailed 10-page proposal in April entitled, “Proposal to Transform the Senate of Canada,” to make substantive changes to the inner workings of the Senate.

In her wide-ranging proposal, she suggested changes to issues such as reducing partisanship in the Senate, reforming Question Period, revising the composition of Senate’s standing committees, electing the Speaker and televising Senate proceedings.

The source predicted that in the fall session, more motions from Conservative and Liberal Senators would be tabled in the Upper Chamber on Senate reforms. The motions will be based on the conversations that took place at the Westin Hotel meetings, said the source.

Since the politically explosive Senate expenses scandal became public last year, which exposed that some Conservative and Liberal Senators allegedly claimed ineligible housing and travel expenses, three Conservative-turned-Independent Senators—Patrick Brazeau, Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin—have been suspended and Liberal Senator Mac Harb has resigned.

It caused major political headaches for the Conservative Party and Prime Minister Stephen Harper (Calgary Southwest, Alberta.).

This worsening political situation led some to speculate last year that Mr. Harper could resign before the next election, which so far has turned out to be inaccurate.

The RCMP is conducting investigations into the questionable housing and travel expenses of the four Senators.

Earlier this year, the RCMP formally filed criminal charges against Senator Brazeau and Senator Harb with one count each of breach of trust and fraud.

As of press time last week, no charges had been filed against Senator Duffy and Senator Wallin, but some media reports and some Senators in not-for-attribution-based conversations, said it is likely to happen against one or both Senators.

The RCMP also undertook a lengthy investigation spanning over several months into the questionable transaction between Nigel Wright, the former Chief of Staff to Prime Minster Harper and Senator Duffy, but in April decided not to file any charges for lack of evidence against Mr. Wright. The former Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Harper, who has now rejoined Onex Corporation in its London, England office, gave Senator Duffy $90,000 to pay off his questionable Senate expense claims and was fired shortly after CTV reported the story. Before coming to Ottawa to work in the PMO, Mr. Wright worked as a senior executive at the Onex Corporation’s Toronto Office and his relocation to England will give him respite from the media spotlight.

The 105-member Upper Chamber has come under close public scrutiny and has lost a significant amount of political capital and credibility in the eyes of Canadians.

According to a study based on 12 focus groups conducted for the Privy Council Office by Léger Marketing last year, participants expressed frustration with the misuse of taxpayers’ money by politicians and wondered if the Upper Chamber’s Parliamentary work is worth its annual budget of close to $100-million.

Meanwhile, in response to a legal opinion sought by the Harper government on Senate reform, the Supreme Court of Canada, in a unanimous decision of eight judges in April, said Senate reform measures proposed by the government, such as implementing term limits or elections of Senators, would require provincial consent. The top court judges said the abolition of the Senate could not be done without unanimous consent by all the provinces and that elections and term limits would need consent from seven provinces.

arana@hilltimes.com

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