Costly flights by three Conservative Senators in 2013, at a time the Senate expenses scandal had practices of Parliament’s upper house under investigation, seemed to go against standards of frugality Canadians want from public office holders. They also seemed politically very stupid, given the absolute certainty the ticket prices, high enough in one case to fly around the world rather than Calgary to Ottawa and back, would come under scrutiny.
CBC Television’s Susan Bonner reported on The National newscast last night, and again this morning on CBC Radio’s World Report, about these travel expense claims.
In the case of a Senator from Toronto, who has a free pass from VIA for railway travel, he not only flew instead, but flew executive class. Ottawa to Toronto is hardly a “long haul” flight, such as from Ottawa to Sochi’s Olympic Games, where we’d perhaps be more tolerant of the need for some creature comfort.
Early this morning I was interviewed about the implications of this story by ten of CBC Radio’s regional stations, from Gander in the east to Victoria in the west, Windsor in the south, Yellowknife and Whitehorse in the north, then Ottawa, Calgary, Sudbury, Kamloops, and much of the province on “Ontario Morning” from Toronto.
I clarified that, based on what Susan Bonner reported, no rules were broken in the Senators making this excessively costly airplane trips. That is part of the larger problem I describe in my book Our Scandalous Senate as a “culture of entitlement” that long ago settled over the Senate and those who occupy the place.
Each Senator has 64 travel points per year, and a point is used for each return flight. It’s intended to equalize travel use. If you’re a Senator from Windsor, Ontario or Whistler, B.C., the ticket cost – which is paid by the Senate Budget Office – might be $400 or $1,400 but either way just uses up one travel point. Last year the Senate changed some aspects of the travel point system, but did not break any new ground. It only copied some of the clarifications made by the House of Commons for MPs travel some years ago. And the Senate still has its wonky criteria for deciding, on the basis of “health and well-being” how some of the travel points can be used.
Susan Bonner’s report might have looked at how many of their travel points these Senators used, but instead looked at the practice of some Senators privileging themselves on the public dime. That’s what Canadians, who pay these costs, want to see. The travel costs, though, are just a small slice of the $100 million the Senate costs us each year.
The CBC bills Susan’s report as an “investigation” but it is really just a report – these Senators already posted all their costs on-line, voluntarily, in a salute to transparency and accountability, so it only required picking out the biggest abusers and putting a television camera on them to record their excuses. A real investigation needs to go deeper – something I do for example in my book Our Scandalous Senate coming out this spring – to expose how overall financial administration is systemically far more scandalous.
Even a report by Susan Bonner that would shed more light is why the Liberal Senators have not posted their expenses on-line – despite Justin Trudeau’s commitment months ago that they would. Now that he’s disowned them all, they are probably even less inclined in their hurt and humilation to report expenses, as he’d ordered them, to the public.
The political fallout from this latest CBC report won’t likely change much about how a growing number of Canadians rightly feel about the Senate. It won’t lead to changes in the rules because the Senators don’t want to change and they write their own rule book. But the CBC story does serve to keep the national scandal of the Senate itself where it needs to be – prominent on our political agenda. More fallout will come with Susan Bonner’s follow-up report on the Liberal Senators’ air travel, although we can expect similar results – at least in terms of high costs – because once they are Senators Liberals and Conservatives tend to act alike, as members of the same exclusive club.
On all these costs, the two next big stories will come from the full-scale investigations now underway, by Auditor General of Canada Michael Ferguson who is now conducting a special audit of expenses incurred by every one of Canada’s 105 Senators – as Susan mentioned to Peter Mansbridge last night – but also by the RCMP, who have already laid charges against former Liberal Senator Mac Harb and suspended Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau, not for air travel but housing allowance claims in their cases. The common feature across them all – air travel, housing claims, meals and the rest – are loose rules and lax financial administration at the Senate, out of date and out of harmony with what Canadians have a right to expect of public office holders.