By Aaron Wudrick,
Federal Director, Canadian Taxpayers Federation
These are tough times for Canada’s Senate. The so-called members of the Chamber of “sober second thought” may soon be driven to drink — hopefully not on the taxpayers’ dime. There is a seemingly eternal parade of bad news: from Mac Harb to Patrick Brazeau and Pamela Wallin, to the never-ending trial of Mike Duffy, to the looming report from the auditor-general expected in the coming weeks, which is expected to identify additional cases of improper and wasteful spending by senators.
But in this sea of bad news is a golden opportunity for senators to show they’re serious about imposing real consequences for criminal behaviour. There is currently a private members bill before the Senate — Bill C-518 — which, if passed, would result in a senator or member of Parliament losing their pension if convicted of one of 19 serious Criminal Code offences, including theft, fraud and breach of trust.
As the law stands today, federal politicians can be (and have been) convicted of these serious crimes and still collect their taxpayer-funded pensions. Those who rip off Canadian taxpayers, and are found guilty by a court of law, can nonetheless continue to live off of taxpayer largesse. Simple common sense tells us this is wrong.
Some have argued that taking away a politician’s pension would be too severe a punishment, and that jail time alone should suffice. But this overlooks the fact that politicians are uniquely placed to abuse the public purse: they alone have the power to tax and spend public money, and indeed are the writers of the laws themselves. Is it too much to ask that they then be held to a higher standard than others who are entrusted with no such special powers or responsibilities? Is it too much to ask that taxpayers not be forced to send bi-weekly cheques to the very people convicted of ripping them off?
Indeed, killing C-518 on grounds that is somehow unfair would send all the wrong signals to a public that is already highly cynical about the Senate. Many Canadians currently believe the Senate is not interested in accountability; that it doesn’t believe actions should have consequences; and certainly can’t be trusted to self-police.
So what better way for Senators to prove they are sincere in their efforts to ensure the Senate stops being a hotbed of scandal and suspicion than by passing this bill?
By demonstrating their willingness to be held to a higher standard, senators could finally have something concrete to point to in making themselves accountable. Perhaps the best part is that they already have the will of the elected House of Commons behind them, where all three parties voted overwhelmingly in support of the bill.
Time is running out. As with all bills, once Parliament rises at the end of June and an election is called for October as expected, the bill will die and the opportunity will have been missed.
Moreover, former senator Mac Harb’s trial is scheduled to start on Aug. 10. If the Senate kills Bill C-518 and if Harb is convicted of one of the 19 crimes, he will continue to collect his estimated $122,989 annual pension.
Senators haven’t had many chances to show how serious they are about toughening up the rules that govern them.
One such chance now sits right in front of them. They should do the right thing and seize it by passing C-518.