Harder urges senators to embrace independent oversight of their expenses


OTTAWA — The government’s representative in the Senate is urging senators to stop dragging their feet and create an independent body to oversee their expenses.

Sen. Peter Harder is applying pressure six years after the Senate was engulfed by scandal over alleged improper expense claims and more than three years after the federal auditor general recommended an independent oversight body to help head off future problems.

Harder says senators should not be judging the legitimacy of their fellow senators’ expense claims, as has been the practice.

“There has to be an adjudication that isn’t just amongst ourselves,” Harder said in an interview.

Upper houses in other parliamentary democracies, including the House of Lords in Britain, have long since adopted independent oversight mechanisms, he added. “This is normal, modern practice.”

Senators have been studying the matter for months.

A year ago, the Senate’s internal-economy committee recommended creating a permanent audit and oversight committee — made up of five senators, no outsiders — to keep tabs on senators’ expenses.

Last March, the Senate kicked the recommendation over to its rules committee to propose any changes needed to let it happen.

The idea has remained stalled there ever since.

Last week, the rules committee agreed with its chair, Conservative Sen. Leo Housakos, that it has no mandate to re-open discussion on creating an arm’s-length oversight committee whose members would come from outside the Senate. The rules committee is to consider a draft report at its next meeting on the changes required to create a senators-only permanent committee.

The issue will eventually come back to the full Senate and Harder said he’ll make the case then that oversight of expenses must be truly independent.

He said he thinks senators’ reluctance thus far to embrace independent oversight is a result of the “trauma that individual senators who were sitting at the time felt with respect to the review of the auditor general and they’re loath to have that degree of transparency be welcomed in the Senate of Canada.”

Auditor general Michael Ferguson examined the expenses of more than 100 current and former senators over a two-year span. In a 2015 report, he flagged more than 30 senators who had made questionable expense claims totalling nearly $1 million — a figure that was reduced after retired Supreme Court justice Ian Binnie reviewed the expenses of some senators who chose to challenge Ferguson’s findings in a binding arbitration process.

Harder emphasized that the Senate has made “a lot of progress” since the expenses scandal cast a cloud over the entire chamber. But he said that’s not enough reason to ignore Ferguson’s recommendation of an independent oversight body.

“(The Senate’s reputation) has improved somewhat but we are always one incident away from having a revival of these issues and I think institutionally you want to strengthen your oversight so as to avoid these situations,” he said.

“It behooves the Senate to respond with an embrace of more transparency. We’ve done it with Senate attendance; those are now proactively disclosed. We’ve done it on Senate expenditures; they’re now all online.

“This is the ultimate last step of transparency so that the public can have confidence in how we manage public funds.”

Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press