One of the key parts of embattled Senator Pamela Wallin’s defence is that she wanted to be an “activist senator” when she was appointed, and that she’s been making speeches across the country and so on as part of this self-appointed mandate. And apparently she’s not the only one – not even two months ago, it was revealed that newly appointed Conservative Senator Thahn Ngo is charging the Senate to go speak to Vietnamese groups across the country, because as a Vietnamese-Canadian senator, he sees that as part of his duties. All of which raises the question of just what should constitute the duties of a senator, “activist” or otherwise?
It’s a tricky question, given the rather nebulous nature of political representation. Political science courses are replete with theories of representation, and what it means in a representative democracy, especially when representation goes out beyond simple geographic boundaries. This is especially true for representatives of ethno-cultural communities, for whom they take on a kind of additional responsibility of representing those communities across the country.
But while Wallin may have made a big deal about wanting to speak out about “the role of women in public life, Canada’s mission in Afghanistan, and support for our troops,” as she termed it, there does need to be a line around what is deemed actual Senate business, and what is using your position as a Senator to promote a cause – and yes, there is a distinction between the two. Where this becomes especially problematic are when these kinds of promotions or speeches take on a partisan tenor, as has been alleged with Ngo’s appearances with Jason Kenney, where the speeches also became a pitch for the Conservative party – something which clearly is not Senate business, whether he’s a Senator for that particular community or not, and merits further investigation.
So what then, about other “activist” senators who are promoting causes, like Romeo Dallaire on the subject of child soldiers, or Colin Kenny, with anti-smoking issues or national security issues? It’s not an easy answer, but I think that one possible solution that the Senate could look at when determining the appropriateness of these kinds of expenses is the output that comes from the travel claims. With a Dallaire or a Kenny, one will often find a report produced at the end of the day, which may contain recommendations or would result in the creation of legislation. Clearly, that kind of output would constitute Senate business because it fulfils the kind of deliberative and investigative functions that the Senate performs. That Senators have the flexibility to take on individual initiatives rather than be constrained solely to committee work is of value to the Senate as a whole, clearly.
But mere representation is not. It’s great that Senator Ngo wants to reach out to Vietnamese- Canadian communities around the country, but to what end? If it is to simply pitch for supporting the Conservative party, that’s not exactly an output that adds value to the institution. And to be quite frank, if Senator Ngo wants to act as a motivational speaker, then he can join a speaker’s bureau and set up a fee structure that offsets his costs, rather than passing them onto the taxpayer. If he’s making a pitch for the party, then the party can pay for those expenses. It’s not a difficult concept.
So what does this mean coming out of the Wallin audit? That it’s becoming more incumbent upon the Senate’s financial administration to take a more active hand in determining that the trips being charged for are indeed Senate business. If it’s for an individual initiative, such as a single Senator’s report or consultations on an issue that they’re involved in, then perhaps they can submit claims at the end of the process, when there’s a report in hand, that the Senate’s financial administration can verify against to show that yes, there is an output that can be measured against the claims that were made. Because of senators like Wallin, it is no longer good enough to simply declare that the travel was made for Senate business, and to be fair, this is less and less the case since the Auditor General’s performance audit of 2012.
Yes, there are going to be Senators who won’t like it. And there will certainly be those Senators who object to if they feel they are being treated under a presumption of guilt when it comes to their expense claims. But as a more robust system is put into place, and more clear guidelines about what constitutes Senate business is defined, we are less likely to see these kinds of problems in the future. And hopefully, these kinds of expense distractions will stop being a cloud on the actual good work of the institution.