Canadian senators are reportedly mulling their options this week as they confront another scandal involving a member of the Upper Chamber, but expelling Sen. Don Meredith permanently may be easier said than done.
Meredith has faced repeated — and very public — calls to resign over the past week in the wake of a report from the Senate’s ethics watchdog, who alleged that the 52-year-old senator had sexual relations with a teen once before she turned 18, and twice after she turned 18.
WATCH: Trudeau comments on scandal surrounding Senator Don Meredith
Meredith also had explicit online chats with the girl, according to ethics officer Lyse Ricard, and offered to help her parents and to get her an internship in the Senate.
The married senator, who is an ordained Pentecostal pastor, acknowledged in the report that he had sexual relations with the unidentified woman, but not while she was a minor.
He has not been charged with any crime, and has so far remained in his job.
How to dismiss a senator
Meredith has already been booted out of the Conservative Senate caucus (in 2015) and more recently out of the caucus of independent senators. He is also no longer sitting on committees, but he’s still a paid, sitting senator.
Suspending him temporarily and stopping his paycheque would not be especially difficult, requiring a motion put to a vote.
But such a suspension, like the ones imposed on senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau a few years ago, only lasts until the end of the Parliamentary session. It must be renewed after each election if senators want it to remain in effect.
The Senate has very specific rules for when and how a member of the Upper Chamber should be dismissed permanently, losing the title of senator. In fact, it has never come to that.
A permanent dismissal can be triggered in five situations under the Constitution Act, 1867:
- The senator is absent for more than two consecutive sessions
- The senator goes bankrupt
- The senator does not meet residency or property qualifications in the province they represent
- The senator declares their allegiance or adherence to a foreign power
- The senator is found guilty of treason, or is convicted of a felony
None of these situations apply to Meredith. The Senate ethics committee is set to hold an emergency meeting on March 22 to discuss the unique case.
According to Howard Leeson, a constitutional scholar and professor emeritus in Political Science at the University of Regina, the Senate finds itself in uncharted territory, and it will have to adapt.
“Really, the governing convention here would be that any House has the right to judge its own members, and to have procedures by which they are disciplined, and/or punished and/or even expelled,” Leeson said.
The Senate therefore has the power to dismiss Meredith as a result of his behaviour, Leeson explained, but there’s no clear process in place to do it — at least not yet.
“They would want to have what you and I would call a ‘full process.’ They have the ethics report already, so they have a lot of detail, but there would have to be a process by which they develop some rules or regulations for expulsion,” he said.
“There would have to be a hearing, and evidence presented again at the hearing … and then a motion would have to come to the Senate floor and it would have to be supported by a majority in the House.”
The only recourse for Meredith, if the Senate went that route, would be the courts, Leeson added.
“But I suspect that the courts would simply say, ‘No, this is entirely up to the House, this is a matter of privilege.'”
A dangerous precedent?
But forcing Meredith out using that privilege would undoubtedly set a precedent, and future senators could possibly be expelled for reasons that don’t pass the smell test.
“Such as ‘I don’t like your views on this or that. Let’s get rid of all of the opposition,'” Leeson said. “It then transgresses the whole concept of privilege.”
So what else might the Senate do?
According to a report from the CBC Tuesday, some senators are so incensed by Meredith’s behaviour that they have asked their law clerk to look further into Section 18 of the Constitution Act.
The section states that Canadian parliamentarians have all the “privileges, immunities or powers … enjoyed, and exercised by the Commons House of Parliament in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.”
In Britain, MPs can oust a member of the House of Commons with a majority vote in favour of a motion to remove that person. Section 18 seems to imply that Canadian senators could have that same power.
If Meredith decides to remain in office, this may be an option available to the Senate to forcibly remove him without introducing a whole new process.
At age 52, Meredith still has 23 years left before the mandated retirement age of 75. Whether he stays, is kicked out, or resigns, the Senate has confirmed that he will still qualify for a pension once he reaches age 60.