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Liberal senator calls for more disclosure in upper chamber

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. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

While not yet fully embracing the idea of Senate reform, the Liberal leader in the upper chamber is looking for ways to boost the public’s confidence in the institution, namely through increased disclosure and a better appointments process.

“I think we ought to have a greater level of disclosure and I’m sure we’ll move towards that,” Opposition leader in the Senate James Cowan said during an interview on The West Block with Tom Clark, before offering a quick defence of the Senate.

“I think the level of disclosure is higher in the Senate than in the House, as a matter of fact.”

He also suggested that increased vetting of potential senators could also help the upper chamber’s integrity.

While Senate expenses are reported on a quarterly basis, the reports posted online offer little insight or detail to the exact manner in which money was spent.

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Overall sums are lumped into broad categories such as regular travel, other travel, hospitality, and living expenses in the National Capital Region.

Although these expenses have been posted for some years, it was only after an external auditor was brought in that it was revealed some senators were abusing their privileges and taxpayers’ dollars, whether knowingly or not.

“I think there needs to be a higher level of disclosure and transparency, and I think we’ll move towards that. I would certainly favour that,” Cowan said.

The current 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 capital region, when all three were actually living the majority of the time in their homes close to Parliament Hill.

Sen. Pamela Wallin is still under investigation for her travel expenses.

The scandal has expanded considerably since the audits were published last month to include the fact that Duffy repaid his inappropriately-claimed housing expenses with a cheque from Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s then-chief of staff – as well as instances where the senator claimed expenses for Senate business when he was in fact campaigning for the Conservative Party.

Both Wallin and Duffy resigned from the Conservative caucus amid the controversy. Brazeau was suspended from the Senate in February following assault and sexual assault charges.

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While Cowan said he supports posting online every expense from every senator, he notes he does not “make the rules” in the Senate, nor are the rules necessarily the problem in the ongoing Senate spending scandal.

“This is not a problem with the rules of the Senate, so much as a problem with the interpretation of the rules,” he said. “To me, the rules are perfectly clear. I know what my name is, I know where I live, I don’t have any difficulty deciding whether a particular expense is going to come out of my pocket or if I’m going to charge it to the taxpayer. Those rules are perfectly clear for most people.”

The fact that three senators were found to have wrongly collected more than $190,000 in housing allowances, and that another is under investigation for travel expenses, has harmed public trust, said John Manley, who once served as deputy prime minister under Jean Chretien.

“I think what’s being revealed is an abuse of the privilege that members of Parliament … are expected to be really pretty pristine in how they deal with their affairs,” he said. “I think it’s always damaging to the public trust, and therefore it’s damaging to the whole political class, when we get to issues like we’ve recently been having on spending … I think it hurts everybody. It just makes people more cynical and less respectful and that’s no good for our institutions.”

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Keith Beardsley, who acted as Harper’s deputy chief of staff from 2006 to 2008, echoed Manley, saying the public is displeased –not only with the abuse of the public purse, but also with the way in which the Prime Minister’s Office has handled the issue.

Harper’s former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, resigned shortly after it was revealed that he cut that $90,000 cheque for Duffy. Still, despite repeated questions, the public does not know under which conditions the cheque was issued – was the Senate to go easy on Duffy in its report on his expense audit?

Nor is anyone certain Harper was unaware of the transaction, despite his public denials.

“I think right now, if you talk with the public, they’re not happy with what they’re hearing – these so-called famous talking points,” Beardsley said. “You don’t hear anyone (in PMO) saying they’re angry or upset, which is what the public wants them to say.”

Beardsley added that Canadians shouldn’t hold their breath waiting to know the circumstances under which the cheque was cut.

“At this point, I don’t ever see that coming out unless Nigel says it himself, or Duffy comes out and gets into a bigger discussion,” he said. “And that’s part of the problem PMO has. They can’t control what may or may not come down the road.”

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