National Column: Senate not sorry for Caligula-style spending

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There will be some mighty tough times at the trough ahead.

If not, the Canadian Senate canít survive.

Auditor general Michael Ferguson has lifted the manhole cover and exposed a Senate that makes its own rules, enforces them as it sees fit and decides to release information when it feels like it.

Many cited in his two-year study were treating the upper chamber and your tax money as their private playground. There likely hasnít been a club like this since Caligula called it quits. And still, contrition and a sense of urgency here were lacking.

You would think Senate Speaker Leo Housakos, after digesting this, might come before the microphones and plead to keep his job.

Housakos instead gave us a little soft shoe when challenged on change, referring to the audit as a dated “snapshot” instead of the horror show it was.

Think of it this way – if you spilled red wine on your white shirt, you would act quickly to limit the damage and maybe save the shirt.

Ferguson dumped a bottle of Merlot on this discredited body Tuesday but Housakos seemed to want to discuss the vintage and aroma.

Only Conservative leader Claude Carignan pledged to immediately change the culture and institute a key Ferguson recommendation of independent oversight.

Housakos and Liberal leader James Cowan stressed the need for collective action. Perhaps over aperitifs and hors díouevres?

Those who collectively decided to treat the place as an ATM would now want to collectively move quickly on reform because calls for abolition or a non-binding referendum to lead the way on radical reform will grow only louder.

Senate rules? How would you like to work here – “As a group, senators are responsible for governing themselves and how the Senate functions,íí Ferguson wrote. “They design their own rules, choose whether to enforce those rules, and determine what, if any, information will be publicly disclosed.íí

You want to travel business class? Go ahead. You want to book your spouse business class while the family has free first-class rail travel from Toronto to Ottawa? Sure, go ahead.

Retired Sen. Rod Zimmer, a Liberal and Paul Martin appointee, along with his wife hit taxpayers with $2,072 in taxi fares in Ottawa. Thatís a lot of cab trips. This place isnít very big.

They charged $102,524 in airfare for trips where Ferguson could find no evidence of work being done.

Oh, and by the way, Zimmer hasnít returned the Senateís digital camera and computer equipment, even though he left here last August.

Senators were claiming per diems when a meal was made available. One senator told Ferguson he or she had to do it, because “it was not possible to get a reasonable meal on an airplane in Canada.íí We already know what. Sen. Nancy Ruth, who got a clean bill of spending health, thinks of “cold Camembert” on airlines.

They didnít bother to save roaming costs on cellphones when travelling, they didnít like their standard-issued Christmas cards, so they spent $30,000 upgrading to nicer, customized cards. Many didn’t bother keeping proper records to justify their expenses. They didnít have to disclose any potential conflicts with business or personal relationships. The former speaker, Noel Kinsella, a Brian Mulroney appointee, didn’t even track expenses for booze at receptions or gifts purchased at the parliamentary boutique.

Why would you? You made the rules in your club, you were not accountable to anyone at home, you’re not even subject to inquiring eyes through the Access to Information Act.

Others billed us for golf trips, hockey games and wedding anniversaries. Saskatchewan Sen. David Tkachuk, a Conservative and Mulroney appointee who was a key player in a questionable audit of Mike Duffy’s spending, flew himself and his spouse to another senatorís 50th wedding anniversary and billed taxpayers $1,900 (which he has paid back).

Senators were allowed to respond to Fergusonís findings and in some cases they were churlish, not sorry. “Purported findings,” sniffed retired Sen. Donald Oliver, a Nova Scotia Conservative and Mulroney appointee whose case was referred for RCMP investigation, before he repaid $23,395.27. A “defamatory affront to my personal integrity,” shouted retired Conservative Sen. Gerry St. Germain of British Columbia, a Mulroney appointee whose case was also referred to the Mounties and has only partially repaid $67,588.

In fairness, it should be noted that 86 senators who were audited came out clean. Those 86 should be furious with those 30 named, (nine referred to the RCMP) and the other four already under investigation or facing charges, because those who treated this place like a private club have sullied them all.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
tharper@thestar.ca Twitter:@nutgraf1

Copyright 2015 – Torstar Syndication Services

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