A political cancer?
The Senate expense scandal
What happens to our sense of fairness as individual Canadians and to the nobility of politics, which is about caring for the well-being of citizens and country, deeply concerns me after closely watching the news coverage of the Senate expense scandal during these past two weeks. It is in this context that I write this column – not to pass judgment on anyone’s responsibility, integrity and culpability in the discharge of their official duties.
Motion to suspend and natural justice
Strongly supported by our Prime Minister, Senate Leader Claude Carignan has introduced a motion to suspend without pay and benefits three of his colleagues – Conservative Senators Patrick Brazeau, Mike Duffy, and Pamela Wallin – for “gross negligence in the management of parliamentary resources.” Apparently, the appropriate Senate committee on the auditor’s six-month-old report on their accounts has not yet heard the trio. Moreover, the RCMP, whom the Senate had asked to investigate, has not completed its work and no criminal charges have been laid.
Admittedly, a court trial is fundamentally different from disciplinary proceedings in the Senate. And since the Senate is master of itself, it retains its wide discretion to discipline its members according to its own standards. Be that as it may, both proceedings are duty-bound to uphold the doctrine of natural justice – also known as the fundamental principle of procedural fairness. It is one essential element in the rule of law.
So supreme is the principle that even laws passed by parliament must conform and shall be deemed null and void from the beginning if found to be in violation of this doctrine – “a universal ideal of justice which leads to its being called ‘natural.’” Indeed, it would be difficult to understand that Parliament would ever grant broad disciplinary powers to its committees or leadership and not intend them to be exercised in conformity with the two fundamental rules of this principle.
The first is the rule against bias due to monetary or “any other interest likely to be a real cause of bias.” The answer to the question, “Would a reasonable person suspect non-monetary political bias when he or she realizes that only politicians, the majority of whom are having their political convention around the time of the anticipated vote, would be voting?” would be a test. One cannot escape an apprehension of bias in such a situation.
The other rule is the right to a hearing – an eternal truth. A legal scholar once noted “that even Adam had been called upon by God to meet the charge of having eaten of the forbidden tree before suffering expulsion.”
Where do you stand on this motion?
Manitoba Conservative Senator Don Plett, who has publicly declared to vote against the motion if not amended or changed, said during debate in the Senate, “I am a Conservative, first and foremost, because I believe in the principles of fairness and justice… The problem here is what we are trying to do is over-simplify a complex issue with a quick fix at the expense of three individuals before giving them the opportunity to defend themselves.”
Dan Lett of the Winnipeg Free Press in his October 25th article, “Manitoba’s Plett stands up for his principles,” noted the Senator’s “impassioned plea for restraint.” Like other Conservative Senators and the Official Opposition in the Senate, Don Plett is opposed to the Senate motion as it stands on the basis that “This is, at the very least, premature.” He would like to give his three accused colleagues prior opportunity to defend themselves.
A political cancer
This columnist sees this Senate matter as a political cancer that, unless urgently and truthfully managed, can do irreparable harm. Since debate on the motion started and the three Senators have given their responses in the Senate chamber, news coverage has spread enormously. While government leadership in both chambers of Parliament have alleged a serious breach of the Senate rules and regulations and other possible criminal wrongdoing to justify the motion, the accused Senators and the opposition political parties singly or jointly have answered with claims of innocence and allegations of ethical lapses, intimidation, blackmail, betrayal, abuse of power and cover-up by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Indeed, media commentators, editorial opinions and news reports – broadcast and print – have continued to portray the scandal’s ugly tentacles.
A sword of Damocles for politics and truth
There is agreement from all camps – from the three Senators, the Prime Minister and his office, the Senate leader, the Conservative, Liberal and independent senators – that an independent audit of the expense claims and payments had to be done and the RCMP has to continue its thorough investigation.
Since those who feel the unchanged motion is unfairly harsh and premature have included Tory Senators, their position lends more credibility. In fact, the Senate Leader has since indicated his openness to changes being made to the motion. If, however, supporters for the unchanged motion were only to come from the Tory Senators and eventually their majority numbers subsequently claim victory, shouts of partisanship are likely to emerge and would likely be convincing.
At this juncture, I share two editorial opinions. The Ottawa Citizen opened its editorial of October 21, 2013, “The role of the PMO with these words: “Senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau deserve no sympathy for the scrutiny of their expense practices, and they must ultimately be held accountable for their actions — even if that means being kicked out of the upper chamber. But accountability means more than whether Duffy or Wallin or Brazeau remains a senator. The more important issue is that Canadians need to know the whole truth about the government’s interference with Senate expense claims, from the moment Duffy was appointed to his interactions with senior Conservative leaders and the role of the Prime Minister’s Office in his repayment.”
The Globe and Mail editorial concluded a week later on October 28, “Answers needed from the PM: The Harper government must make public all documents related to Mr. Duffy and fully explain its actions. It must stop the steady erosion of its credibility.”
Chantal Hébert, a well-respected national affairs writer for Mystar, posed these very serious questions in her column of October 29: “For taking the prime minister at his word, if he was gullible enough to buy a false story from his own palace guard, what does that say about his management of his own office? And if PMO staff assumed that it was acceptable to encourage a senator to lie, what does that say about the ethical rules that the prime minister enforces within his own ranks?”
These editorials are a challenge to our national leadership.
Cure the disease and save the patient
Let me end on an optimistic note. First, you may want to recall that Canada began as one country in 1867 when the Fathers of Confederation agreed to our system of parliamentary democracy – a democracy based on population as reflected in the elected House of Commons and on provincial geography as reflected in the appointed Senate. It was, indeed, a stroke of Canadian political genius – a victory for the twin virtues of fairness and political nobility that balance minority and majority interests. That is, the interests and well-being of citizens from the smaller provinces like Manitoba in our diversely populated country are equally represented, heard and taken into account, not ignored, in Canadian policy-and-law-making, including during consideration of the national budget. The House of Commons retains primacy in government leadership with the Senate and Governor General’s Office providing sober second thought, advice and consent. I must add that the Senators’ knowledge of grassroots issues and insights on provincial and regional concerns complement and, at times, surpass those of the elected MPs, an experience shared by this columnist. Indeed, most Senators have served with diligence and distinction worthy of our salute and gratitude. We can make it even better.
Hon. Dr. Rey Pagtakhan, who served in the House of Commons for more than 15 years and in the Government of Canada as senior cabinet minister, has deposited his 1991 paper (with HA Skublics), Options for a Triple-E Senate: A Comparative Analysis of Existing Models for Senate Reform in Canada, in the Library of Parliament.