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Senators - And MPs - Need to Enter the 21st Century

February 27, 2013
Senators - And MPs - Need to Enter the 21st Century

UPDATE: Senator Pamela Wallin told the Canadian Taxpayers Federation that she has not claimed the $21,000 annual housing allowance as was previously reported. Wallin says she spent 168 days in Saskatchewan last year, not 138 days as originally stated in this commentary.

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Now that Senator Mike Duffy has agreed to pay back his $42,000 housing allowance, it’s time for Canadians to put some heat on all Senators and Members of Parliament to come clean about how they spend taxpayer dollars. And it’s time to ditch the housing allowance all together and relax current residency requirements for Senators.

Since 1867, the Constitution has required Senators to own at least $4,000 of real estate in the province they represent. It also requires them to “be a resident” of the province or territory.

Canada’s two best-known Senators, Pamela Wallin and Mike Duffy, are under fire for claiming housing allowances, and critics are asking whether they are actually “residents” of Saskatchewan and Prince Edward Island.

The Constitution was written before the invention of driver’s licenses and provincial health cards (items that would help prove “residency”), and before some provinces, like PEI, started stipulating that you need to live there for at least 183 days a year to be a resident. It was also written before an expanding Senate schedule of sittings and committee work started making it tough, if not impossible, to meet a 183-day residency requirement in any city other than Ottawa.

Of course, these residency requirements are not placed on Members of Parliament, otherwise Prime Minister Harper wouldn’t be able to stand for election in Calgary. Similarly, NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brousseau wouldn’t have been able to seek and win election in rural Quebec as an Ottawa-region resident.

While opening the Constitution to remove residency requirements for Senators is highly unlikely, naming Senators as “ residents” by provincial cabinets might just be a plausible work-around.

Wallin stays in hotels when in Ottawa, maintains homes in Toronto, Manhattan and Wadena, Saskatchewan – and apparently – spent 138 days in Saskatchewan last year. Mike Duffy similarly keeps Air Canada in business ferrying him back and forth to PEI, where he has a cottage. Duffy’s schedule, like Wallin’s, probably isn’t going to get him a PEI health card anytime soon.

Duffy and Wallin are targets because they’re both celebrities, and they’ve claimed the Senate’s $21,000 yearly Ottawa housing allowance even though Duffy probably lives in Ottawa, not PEI, and Wallin probably lives in Toronto, not Wadena. Also caught in the dragnet is Senator Dennis Patterson, who represents Nunavut, although he probably lives in Vancouver.

Lost in the matter are the original offenders, newly-independent Senator Patrick Brazeau and Liberal Senator Mac Harb, who have been pocketing the $21,000 yearly allowance, even though they’ve both lived nowhere but Ottawa for a very long time, and they both represent the Ottawa area in the Senate.

The blame and the scorn for these Senators’ expense shenanigans should fall on every member of the Senate and every MP. For starters, the housing allowance for maintaining a second home in Ottawa was only brought into place in 1990. Before that Senators and MPs used their healthy salaries to find modest accommodations while in Ottawa. Now, the housing allowance is simply another way for politicians to pocket tax-free income.

If the Senate deems the current level of remuneration for being a Senator insufficient to also cover the cost of renting a bed while in Ottawa, they should make their case to the public for it to be increased. But the bottom line is that it should all be rolled into one, lump-sum salary so that nobody can be accused of gaming the system in the future.

However, eliminating or rolling the housing allowance into the current salary might solve half the problem; it doesn’t address the decided lack of transparency and accountability of how MP and Senators’ budgets are spent.

Anybody can go on the internet and examine expense receipts for any Alberta MLA or any Toronto city councillor, including Alberta’s premier and Toronto’s mayor. But MPs and Senators have placed themselves above the auditor general, and outside the federal Access to Information Act, and refused to release their expense receipts to the public.

So long as Senators and MPs can access public money, tax free, with no accountability and no disclosure, we will keep having these expense scandals.

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