Mr. Speaker, as always, it is a great honour to stand in the House representing the people of Timmins—James Bay. The motion before us tonight is on the funding of the Senate. I will not go through the issues of the constitutionality of the Senate in light of the Supreme Court ruling because I do not know if that necessarily needs to be the issue before us tonight.
We are talking about whether or not this body, which was appointed through political favours and choices without any check or balance or any mandate from the Canadian people, has a fundamental accountability to the citizens and taxpayers of this country.
In the 21st century, I have a very hard time with the idea that an institution is above reform, that an institution cannot be reformed. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, the only thing worse than being priest-ridden was squire-ridden. I would say the only thing worse than being squire-ridden is being crony-ridden. This is what we have within this institution. It is an institution that sets its own rules, where people cannot be fired. That is a recipe for corruption and abuse.
This is not to say that there are angels in the House of Commons, certainly not. I would be the last one to say angels even set foot in this room, except perhaps the member for Sherbrooke, who I am certain is very angelic at all the best of times.
We have a mechanism within our impure democracy and in our impure democratic system that people can be removed if they abuse the public trust, because they have to go back and get that mandate from the voters, but that does not exist within the Senate. So the issue is how we, as the elected House representing the people, chosen by the people of Canada to represent their interests, are somehow to be subservient to another class of people who are above the interests of the Canadian people.
This is the time of year when there is all manner of school groups and tourists visiting Ottawa, and they hear the tourist guides who tell them the wonderful story of the Senate. They say that when John A. Macdonald created the House of Commons, he had to create the Senate to protect the minorities, which is why we have a Senate that protects the interests of women, first nations, and people of colour. I hear that from the tourist guides, but that is not what John A. Macdonald had in mind as all. He was not worried about first nation people and women when he set up the Senate. Those were not the minorities he was talking about. He said there will always be more common people than rich people, so we need to protect their interests. Hence the Senate was born.
Since we did not have the long history of the squire system and the knight system and the duke system, we had to do something of our own and that was to pick cronies. People who flipped pancakes at political fundraisers and did the glad-handing for the parties were appointed to the Senate and they were appointed for life. It was supposed to be a chamber of sober second thought, but it has not worked out that way.
The Supreme Court at this point is telling us that this institution is still politically untouchable for overall reform, but it does not say anything about the fundamental need to establish an ethical and financial code of conduct within the Senate to make it accountable.
I have heard from members on the government side that the idea of cutting the funding is absurd and it would be a fundamental attack on the institution. Let them look at the Westminster tradition where members of the House of Lords get paid if they show up; they get a per diem. In the House of Lords it is an honorary position. If we voted for that it would not change the constitutional requirements of the Senate.
That is the background of the issues. I would like to speak about the fundamental lack of accountability. There are not many things on which I would say I have ever agreed with Conservatives in my entire life. I could count on one hand if I held down three fingers. However, the one thing on which I agreed with the Conservatives initially, before they went off the rails and lost their light in the path of darkness, was the issue of the Federal Accountability Act to try to bring an end of the years of cronyism and corruption that existed under the Liberal government.
At that time, when the Federal Accountability Act was first brought forward, there was talk with the members on the government side about the need to establish one set of conflict of interest guidelines that would keep both the House of Commons and the Senate under the same set of standards, but the Senate refused that. The Senate said no; it would not be held accountable to the same standard as the members of Parliament are.
We have Senate conflict of interest rules, with a Senate Ethics Officer, and I have $100 for anybody who knows her name. They are like the Maytag repairmen; they never get out to check on ethical abuse. That is because they need permission. Senate ethics officers need permission from the senators before they can launch an investigation.
Again, there is the lack of accountability mechanisms. Within the Senate, senators are able to sit on the boards of all manner of corporations. We see them sitting on the boards of telecommunications companies, banks, individual financial institutions, and pharmaceutical companies, and yet these are the people who are reviewing legislation and initiating studies.
Why buy a lowly politician, a lowly MP, or a lowly parliamentary secretary, when corporations can just appoint a senator to their board and nobody pays attention?
The senators, God love them, will say they only do these things in the interest of the Canadian people. They will say that the Senate code of conduct forbids senators from attempting to use their position to influence their private interests or their family members' private interests.
However, check out the Senate code of ethics, which is quite funny and should actually be a cartoon because none of it seems to make much sense.
Under section 14:
(1) If a Senator has reasonable grounds to believe that he or she, or a family member, has a private interest that might be affected..., the Senator shall...make a [oral] declaration regarding the general nature of the private interest [at the first opportunity].
Again, how many times has a senator ever stood up and made that declaration? It is almost non-existent.
Under section 15:
(2) A Senator who has reasonable grounds to believe that he or she, or a family member, has a private interest that might be affected by a manner that is before a committee of which the Senator is a member may participate in debate on that matter, provided that a declaration is first made orally on record.
Of course, if it is in camera, we will never know the difference.
I was looking into this issue of the lack of accountability of the Senate and the kind of corruption that has ensued. Most Canadians do not know how the finances are done. In the House of Commons, we have to purchase something and then submit the bill to the House of Commons. It will look at the bill and decide whether or not it gets paid. If it decides it was not within parliamentary business, the bill does not get paid.
Senators, on the other hand, give themselves a credit card. We have people who cannot be fired, who write their own rules, and as we have learned from Duffy and Wallin scandal, it was an honour system, and they get a credit card on top of that.
I asked Canadians back home if they expected anything different from the likes of Wallin and Duffy and Brazeau, when they had their own credit card and could write their own rules.
There are many other loopholes the senators are able to use while sitting on the boards of major corporations. We know from the police investigation into Pamela Wallin that there were all manner of allegations about her flying across the country, doing private business, corporate interest business, and allegedly double-dipping, saying that she was doing Senate business at the same time.
These are the fundamental problems when there is no clear code of ethics. There are many loopholes.
Democracy is identified under section 13(2): Senators are allowed to be involved in discussion and votes in which their family members or the corporations they work for have a financial interest;
Under section 14(4): If a senator declares a conflict of interest at a behind closed doors committee meeting, that declaration will not be made public unless the committee agrees to it.
I already spoke about section 15.
Under section 26(d), senators are allowed to receive updates from trustees who manage their blind trusts.
Under section 30(2), senators are allowed to keep a secret bank account.
Under section 35, a statement of assets and liabilities of each senator is not easily available on the Internet; it is at the Senate Ethics Office in Ottawa. I am not sure if they have changed that. They were under pressure from the latest Senate corruption scandal and were looking at that.
Right now Mike Duffy is being investigated for fraud, but I would refer members back to the RCMP investigation into Raymond Lavigne, who was found guilty of fraud and kicked out of the Liberal caucus in 2006. He hung on in the Senate until 2011 before he finally decided it was time for him to go. He left because if he was convicted, he would lose his pension, and so he left voluntarily. Now Senator Lavigne has been put in the hoosegow.
If we look at the issues surrounding the Lavigne case of fraud, the RCMP raised all the red flags, which are being raised today, about the lack of financial accountability, the fact that Mr. Lavigne could call all the financial shots himself, even while he was committing fraud. There were no oversight mechanisms. This was known in 2006 and in 2011, but nothing was done about it.
Eric Berntson was found guilty of fraud in 2001. He resigned two years after being convicted. Michel Cogger was convicted of influence peddling. He resigned in 2000, two years after being convicted. We have the infamous Andy Thompson who became a senator and promptly moved to Mexico. He showed up 12 times in 7 years to make an appearance and let people know he was still a senator, while he lived on the beaches of Mexico. Hazen Argue was charged with fraud, theft and breach of trust.
Now this is not to say that senators are more naturally corrupt than elected members. The issue is that we have accountability mechanisms put in place to stop issues of corruption whereas the Senate has steadfastly refused.
The motion before us tonight is important because it is a question of whether the $90-some million that is given to the Senate every year has any strings attached to it, that there is any accountability mechanism. My colleagues on the other side will jump up and down and howl at the most impoverished station in how they spend money, but we will give money to that Senate, no strings attached, when we know there is absolute corruption that has gone on, and when it refuses to set any standards of accountability.
Mike Duffy received a $90,000 secret cheque from the Prime Minister's chief of staff. What happened with that is fascinating, because under the Parliament of Canada Act, section 16, to offer money to a sitting senator is a crime. It is an indictable offence.
If we look at the ITO by Corporal Horton of the RCMP, the question that came up again and again was that this was a quid pro quo, and the quid pro quo was to whitewash the audit into Duffy's defrauding of the Canadian people. It is a very serious charge, because the people who sat on that audit committee, Senators Tkachuk, Stewart Olsen and Gerstein, were made aware, according to the RCMP, of this deal.
There were times in the investigation into Wallin and Brazeau when they were not even saying whether they were going to make the audit public. I find that staggering. The audit was about whether taxpayer money was used illegally to defraud people or to put favours to political senators, and that was not necessarily going to be made public from within the secretive institution known as the Senate in an attempt to whitewash it.
We know that when the original audit came out, there was no wrongdoing, but there was political pressure. They had to go back in and miraculously, with the same audit, found all manner of problems. Suddenly, Brazeau, Wallin and Duffy were made to walk the plank politically. This gets us back to the original problem. When we have a system that does not have accountability mechanisms, these things happen.
This is not to say that there not good people over in the Senate. None of them have a democratic mandate, but that is not to say that they are not fundamentally accountable to Canadians at the end of the day, even if they cannot be fired, even if they can sit there until they are 75 and even whether they show up or go off to live in Mexico and come by once a year to pick up a cheque.
Senators are still fundamentally accountable to the Canadian people, but the accountability does not come from them. We have seen their refusal to establish the conflict of interest guidelines that we have. We have seen their refusal to deal with the obvious lobbying issues in terms of senators sitting on corporate boards.
That accountability mechanism must come through the House of Commons. This is our job. Whether we agree on the Senate and whether we agree on abolition, we all have a common duty here to represent the hard-working people back home.
In my region of Timmins—James Bay, people are frustrated. They work really hard for what they have. I have seen more people working two jobs. I still cannot get over meeting a 68-year-old miner at the Tim Hortons in South Porcupine who told me he was going back to work underground because he could not live on his pension.
The government is telling our seniors that they are going to work until they are 67 now before they can collect that pension. That is okay if they choose to do that, but, again, if they come from a region where people do really hard work and they get worn out by the time they are 65, working until they are 67 is very difficult when their CPP is a maximum of $12,000 a year if they do not have a pension. These people are paying for the largesse for the senators.
There is another mechanism that we have in Parliament. We are limited in terms of our travel. There is travel for committee work and for parliamentary work. However, the limits to choose where senators go and how they go does not seem to exist within the Senate. It is like a perpetual holiday, whatever they want to study, wherever they want to go. There is always the famous story of the senators who felt they needed to go to Mexico in January to study poverty. I would invite them to Fort Albany in January, they could have seen poverty there. However, no, they were on the beaches in Mexico in January at taxpayer expense.
I am asking the folks back home and I am asking my colleagues in the Conservative Party this. There needs to be a wake-up call to this institution because it has shown itself fundamentally defiant in the basic nature of reform. The senators think they are going to ride out this scandal. They have thrown Mike Duffy under the bus. They have tossed Patrick Brazeau overboard. Pamela Wallin has gone for the high jump. However, they will circle the wagons on the rest of them.
We will see, six years after Raymond Lavigne went to jail for fraud, that all the red flags that were raised about the spending mechanisms in the upper chamber will have been ignored. We can see from the Auditor General's report that all the red flags about their lack of basic controls on financial spending were ignored, which has led to this. This group of people believe it will ride this out again.
We can put up our hands and say that the Supreme Court told us it is not reformable, but the Supreme Court said nothing about holding it to account. The day we say that people who were chosen to sit for life above the Canadian people do not have any accountability to Canadian taxpayers would be a pretty sad day for Canada and for Canadian democracy.
I ask my hon. colleagues to think about this. I know they think this is brought forward every year and they see this as an issue that is somehow a joke to them, but I do not think it is a joke. The issue of accountability in the Senate is fundamentally an issue of representing and showing respect for people who pay the taxes for what we do here. People who are working very hard and getting very little back see the largesse that is happening in the Senate, with their credit cards, their flights. They see the fact that they are sitting on boards and doing all manner of business when they should be doing government business.
To the financial issues, we can have that discussion. If senators are only working here one-third of the time, then their flights should be a lot more limited than ours. We have to go home on the weekends to represent our constituencies because our constituents expect to see us. They do not expect to see the senators.
Again, now that Frank Mahovlich is retired and Roméo Dallaire is gone, let us do another Trivial Pursuit question for folks back home. How many senators can they name? Excluding the ones that are under investigation for corruption, they cannot name them because the senators do not see themselves as accountable to those folks. They are accountable.
Tonight, let us put this out there. We need to start this discussion. If it is not about the abolition of the Senate, if it is not about changing the term limits of the Senate, it can be about establishing some conflict of interest guidelines, establishing some rules on lobbying and establishing really clear limits on this crowd of senators, who have been blowing through taxpayer money since John A. Macdonald, so they will finally be held financially accountable to the people of Canada.