The Senate is in crisis, one former member of the upper house said after audits into suspicious spending found that a trio of senators together wrongly collected more than $190,000 in housing allowances.
“It’s a crisis in the Senate,” said Lowell Murray, who sat for 32 years as a Progressive Conservative in the Senate.
“There you have more than 100 senators. Two or three have gotten into pretty deep trouble, and unfortunately it reflects badly on all the others … It’s a crisis in the Senate’s relationship with the people of Canada,” he said in an interview on the Global News program The West Block with Tom Clark.
The crisis is rooted in the revelation that Senators Mike Duffy, Patrick Brazeau and Mac Harb were collecting an allowance extended to senators who live more than 100 kilometres from the National Capital Region, when all three were actually living the majority of the time in their homes located close to Parliament Hill. Meanwhile, it is reported the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, James Cowan, has indicated the RCMP will examine the spending.
Since a senator is required to maintain a home in the province he or she represents, the allowance is intended to offset the costs of keeping a second home closer to Ottawa.
To prove where each lives, senators are required to fill out a declaration including the address of their “primary residence.” The declaration also asks for details about a senator’s secondary residence.
“It appears they were faking it, to put it very bluntly,” Murray said. “They were claiming that they had to come from more than 100 kilometres to Ottawa to do their Senate business, when it appears they were living all the time in the shadow of the Peace Tower. That’s serious. That’s filing improper and incorrect and false information.”
Harb has hired lawyers to fight the audit findings and subsequent demand that he repay nearly $51,500, alleging the rules on claiming the housing allowance are not clear. He has resigned from the Liberal caucus and will sit as an independent until the matter is settled.
Duffy, too, said the rules are not clear and the forms confusing, though for his part, he repaid more than $90,000 before the audit was even released. The journalist-turned-senator came under fire last year when it was revealed he listed his cottage in Cavendish, P.E.I. as his primary residence despite having lived in an Ottawa suburb for years – long before his 2009 appointment to the Senate.
Brazeau, who was suspended from the Senate in February following assault and sexual assault charges, claimed his father’s home, located about 130 kilometres from Ottawa, as his primary residence. He had, however, since 2011 been renting a home in Gatineau, Que., which is just across the river from Ottawa.
Brazeau is now being asked to repay close to $49,000 in allowances claimed from April 2011 to Sept. 30, 2012, but has not yet commented on the findings of the audit.
Excuses of confusion and lack of clarity don’t sit well with Murray, who said the Senate does not need to be any more precise in its definition of “primary residence.”
“Look, it is simply not plausible, not credible, not tenable to say there were 98 senators reviewed and two or three of them were confused about what was expected,” he said. “I don’t think that explanation is going to wash. I don’t think it has legs at all. They may as well forget about it.”
Despite the hit the Senate’s reputation has taken while under this shroud of unaccountability and dishonestly, all is not lost, Murray said.
If the upper chamber handles this affair properly – that is to say its members debate the three reports and suss out whether further sanctions are warranted – it could emerge with an “enhanced” reputation, he said.
And Murray is confident those debates and sanctions will soon come.
“I don’t think there’s any desire on the part of most senators to simply let this matter drop and move on,” he said. “They know they can’t do that. They’ve got to deal with it, confront it, and go from there.”