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Senate changes just the first step against corruption

Having looked into the expenses of 116 current and former senators, Canada’s Auditor-General flagged 30 as fishy, recommending nine of them be referred immediately to the RCMP for investigation. While the number seems, well, conservative, it’s a good start in what should be a wider effort to shine a light on the mismanagement and corruption of officials throughout the government.

The Senate is an obvious place to get going. Currently plagued with scandals courtesy of the likes of Pamela Wallin, Mac Harb, Patrick Brazeau and, not least, Mike Duffy, the red chamber has long been known as little more than a plum spot for patronage and payback. Canadians are primed for change there, but are well aware that government is rife with similarly useless and graft-prone positions, not to mention waste on a grand scale.

In that light, this week’s report from the Auditor-General was no shocker.

“We found that the oversight, accountability, and transparency of senators’ expenses was quite simply not adequate,” it reads. “We also found that senators did not always consider the requirement to ensure that expenses funded through the public purse were justifiable, reasonable, and appropriate. We have noted areas where senators could make decisions that would be more economical for taxpayers.”

With some of the concerns identified, the Auditor-General then recommended improvement in the oversight and accountability of senators’ expenses. Not least among them is that senators no longer police themselves, instead handing oversight to an independent body. More transparency and tighter rules are required, as this report notes of the fuzzy rules – those same vague policies being exhibit A in Duffy’s ongoing trial, the scene of revelations about the misdeeds of the Harper government.

Critics have long noted that aside from being undemocratic, unaccountable, illegitimate and unnecessary, the Senate is stacked with people who clearly aren’t required to show ethical behaviour, let alone acting as a sober second thought.

The  Senate Ethics Officer has been the opposite of effective, in part due to a lack of independence. Rather, the office is under the control of a committee of senators. Still, violations of Senate ethics rules are not penalized in any way, and the rules do not require senators to be honest, and allow senators to make decisions even if they have a financial interest in the outcome (as long as the decision applies generally to a broad group of people or organizations). Moreover, conflicts of interest that senators have are not made public unless a senate committee approves it; senators can accept the gift of unlimited travel, even from lobbyists; and senators may sit on the boards of businesses and so they can be essentially inside-government lobbyists for those businesses.

Measures to ensure actual change in the Senate are needed, if unlikely. Politicians and bureaucrats intent on maintaining their places at the trough want no part of a culture of accountability despite our growing distrust and disgust with their ilk.

A loss of faith in politics and politicians can be tied to the way business is done in Ottawa, the provincial legislatures and local town halls.

Politicians have long exempted themselves from rules that apply to others. Changes such as tighter controls on election funding and fixed election dates, would inject additional credibility into a system that has fallen into disrepute.

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