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Outside expertise should be part of Senate’s effort to build confidence on spending: Sen. Harder

The Government Representative in the Senate Peter Harder spoke in Vancouver about Senate renewal.

Canada’s Senate must continue to build public confidence in its ethical conduct by ensuring that a proposed financial oversight panel includes outside experts for advice, the Government Representative in the Senate told university students in Vancouver on Wednesday.

Sen. Peter Harder said that while the Senate has done much to restore confidence as part of its modernization effort, work still needs to be done in the wake of the expense controversies that plagued the upper chamber during the last Parliament.

It’s been more than three years since the Auditor General recommended that the Senate establish a panel with outside experts to provide advice on expenses and spending. Sen. Harder said it’s high time to take that advice to include outside members, or risk the possibility that Canadians won’t trust the panel’s work.

“The Senate should do everything in its power to demonstrate that it welcomes the probing eye of the public – and that it is not troubled by the scrutiny of outside professionals,” Sen. Harder told public policy and political science students at the University of British Columbia.

The current proposal for a panel, being considered by the Senate Committee on Rules, Procedures and the Rights of Parliament, does not include external members.

  • Read Senator Harder’s latest Policy Options piece, “Why the Senate needs external oversight over expenses.”

Sen. Harder said he personally would not support the creation of a body without outside membership, which could include experts in corporate governance and public institutions, and former judicial office holders.

“The Senate’s hard-won work to build trust with the Canadian public would be put to the test,” Sen. Harder said.

Including independent members on an audit and oversight body is an essential ingredient to ensure Canadians trust us to make the right decisions on something as basic as the management of expenses.

The panel’s role would include advising on Senate expenses and auditing methods.

The Senate has made strides in recent years to become a more independent, accountable and transparent institution.

The current Government created an arm’s length, independent advisory board to recommend Senate appointments. So far, 45 independent Senators have been appointed under the new process and many more have left partisan caucuses for independence.

Other highlights include:

  • In June 2014, the Senate adopted a new, more robust Ethics and Conflict of Interest Code for Senators.
  • In July 2016, the Senate started collecting more data about Senators’ expenses in order to publish quarterly reports — proactively disclosing all Senate contracts, as well as all living, travel and hospitality expenses.
  • In May 2017, the Senate’s Standing Committee on Ethics and Conflicts of Interest clarified in a report that the Senate has the power and authority to expel a Senator over inappropriate behaviour. The committee report came after the Senate Ethics Officer’s comprehensive March 2017 report that detailed how a sitting Senator had breached the Senate’s code of conduct. The Senator resigned in light of the reports.
  • In May 2017, the Senate voted to update the rules to recognize parliamentary groups that were not part of a political party, giving independent Senators the same rights as their partisan colleagues.
  • In November 2017, the Senate agreed to give independent Senators a proportionate number of chairs in the all-important committee system.

The Senate will also become more accessible to Canadians in the new year when it begins broadcasting sittings. Senate proceedings are currently available in audio but the chamber will be equipped with cameras in the new year when the Senate moves to its temporary home during the renovation of Centre Block.

“Canadians will be able to follow along as the Senate helps shape new laws that are in the best interest of this country,” Sen. Harder said.

So far this session, the Senate has successfully amended more than a quarter of Government bills, including laws on transportation, impaired driving and the legalization of cannabis, a figure that demonstrates how well the Senate is currently working. In contrast, a single bill was amended by the Senate in the previous session under the former Government.

Outside expertise should be part of Senate’s effort to build confidence on spending: Sen. Harder