The Salon is ONW's weekly gathering place where three of Canada's brightest and most respected political strategists - Rick Anderson, Anne McGrath and Richard Mahoney - come together to analyze national issues affecting Ontario.

Anne McGrath:

The ongoing saga of the Senate expense scandal is more effectively making the case for Senate abolition than we've seen before.

It has always been a scandal but the actions of some of the more recent appointments along with previous Liberal appointments have revealed, in a very ugly way, some of the fundamental problems with an unelected, unaccountable, undemocratic institution.

The scandal is permitting Canadians to look at the Senate much more clearly and I am particularly pleased to see that part of the story is the practice of using the Senate to organize and fundraise for the Liberal and Conservative parties. It has always been so but the fact that it is so blatant, combined with the expense scandal, lays it out in the open.

Trying to just lay the blame at the feet of a few bad apples may be smart strategy but it isn't working and I believe that we are now dealing with the systemic problems with an institution that is peopled with handpicked partisans.


Rick Anderson: 

Anne, I think you are right in the sense that the Senate expenses scandal is fuelling the appetite for change.

I hear "fix it or kill it" more and more often, including from many people who were previously "fix it" people. The status quo defenders are shrinking in number.

I don't know where that's going to settle out in the end: there are plenty of good reasons for a bicameral legislature, and many (including me) believe that reform is constitutionally more feasible than abolition, as well as being more desirable.

Richard Mahoney:

It is true that we have challenges in the Senate and, as we have discussed here before, reforming that place would be desirable and hopefully achievable.

As Anne notes, this scandal goes further than a few bad apples in the Senate. It goes to the character of this Conservative party. Senators Duffy and Wallin were key parts of the Harper 2011 election effort and, at least in Duffy's case, public funds were apparently used to help the Conservative campaign. And the Prime Minister's most important advisor, and the architect of the Conservative fundraising machine, pays off Duffy with a cheque for $90,000.

As Tom Mulcair simply asks, why? Who told him to do that? As Bob Rae asks, if Wright was acting on his own, why not dismiss him for cause?

And today we learned that the Senate ethics officer has called off the probe of all this, because the Senate referred this matter to the RCMP.

Canadians will not be happy until someone accounts for all this chicanery in a public inquiry.


Anne McGrath:

While I welcome the decision to have the Auditor General investigate the arsenate expense, it has been done before and the issue of using the honor system was highlighted as a problem. However, nothing was done to correct it until now when things are spiraling out of control for the Conservatives in both the House and the Senate.

I think one of the most interesting developments of late goes to Rick's point and that is the number of people who are abandoning the fix it approach in favor of getting rid of it. Of note of course was Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall's recent support for abolition. I suspect that Conservative MPs are going to face some serious questions and anger from their voters when they return to their ridings.


Rick Anderson:

Conservative MPs are already facing and hearing that, no question, as I'm sure are MPs from other parties.

I don't see this in quite such a partisan fashion as does Richard; I expect that when the dust finally settles on this - via the probable Auditor General review and the possible new Senate audit committee - both good ideas - there will be egg on more faces than the three or four we know about so far.

And so be it, I say, let the sun shine in to expose what it may, so that corrective measures can be applied and the public regain a sense of confidence that things are being done properly.

I think we are moving in the right direction.


Richard Mahoney:

The RCMP investigation is one thing. We all hope and have to trust that they will do their job, and if crimes have been committed, then the relevant people will be held to account.

The problem with leaving this solely with the RCMP is that is not a public investigation. Neither is another audit by the Auditor-General, as helpful as that might be.

A short inquiry could give Canadians the answers to the following questions:

What expenses were fraudulently charged and for what political purpose? Why did the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff pay for expenses wrongly charged? Where did he get the money to do so? Why was the report on Duffy then changed? And what did the Prime Minister know about all of this?

Canadians have a right to know the answers and it should not be too hard to get them, in a transparent inquiry.


Anne McGrath:

On another front, the proposal to force unions to publicly disclose their finances and political activity is in the Senate and likely to stay there and thus die before it is finally passed. 

This suits the Conservatives since it gives them an opportunity to reintroduce it and thus play to their base and use it for fundraising purposes.

It is an unnecessary and possibly unconstitutional bill designed to create a problem, identify an imagined enemy and feed off myths.

Union members already have full access to information about their union's finances and activities.


Rick Anderson:

I believe Anne's right about what's likely to happen with Bill C-377 in the near term - die at the Senate committee stage when this session ends this summer, and be reintroduced in a modified form in the new session. It was already substantially modified as it went through committee in the House, and even if it does not end now, it faces further amendment again by the Senate committee, requiring back and forth between the House and the Senate to harmonize the bills.

Having said that, I don't share Anne's perspective regarding the bill's merits. There are plenty of Canadians, including many union members, who want more transparency about what unions do with their members' funds, especially in areas of political and quasi-political activity.


Richard Mahoney:

Transparency is a laudable goal but this legislation applies transparency only to organizations this government opposes. Sort of a selective transparency.

If we want the government to force further disclosure on how organizations spend amounts over $5,000, as the Harper government's Bill C-377 seeks to do, through the Canada Revenue Agency no less, then why would they not apply this, as Conservative Senator and icon Hugh Segal says, "to rotary clubs, the Fraser Institute, Christian, Muslim and Jewish congregations across Canada, the Council of Chief Executives, local car dealers or the many farming groups, like the cattlemen’s associations or the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, all of whom do great work?"

Welcome to the nanny state, folks. Brought to you by Stephen Harper.


Anne McGrath:

I worked for years in the union movement and in my union the annual salaries of the union staff were, and still are, mailed out to locals.

This bill is an incredibly expensive solution to a problem that doesn't exist. The Canada Labour Code already provides for union members' rights to see the finances.

This is pure politics, nothing else.


Rick Anderson:

Well, Richard, if you pause for a moment, it's not hard to think of one very major difference between the organization you list, and labour unions: for many workplaces, membership in, and dues paid to the latter are mandatory.

What's wrong with those members having a little better understanding of how their mandatory dues are used, something a little more detailed than the big aggregated numbers which go into annual reports?

Richard Mahoney:

I am surprised that Rick finds merit in this bill. Like Hugh Segal, he is a sensible, thoughtful Conservative who knows that you don't have to agree with someone or some organization to defend its right to do its work.

Unions have a role to play in our economy and society; they are important economic institutions that contribute to our modern economy. This Conservative silliness, aped by Tim Hudak in Ontario is, as Anne says, all about appealing to their base.

But if we require this level of disclosure from unions, why not of all organizations in the country that have members and who may also express views on public policy?

What about local Chambers of Commerce, food banks, the National Citizen’s Coalition or Conservative party attack advertising?

And while we are being transparent, they might also consider cooperating with investigators on the robocall investigations, which the Commissioner says is not happening, or answer the valid questions on the PMO payoff to Mike Duffy via a public inquiry.

If they wanted to be transparent, there are other opportunities to show that, to say the least.  

You can follow The Salon's strategists on Twitter:

Rick Anderson: @RickAnderson

Anne McGrath: @OttawaAnne

Richard Mahoney: @RicMahoney

About The Salon (Anderson, Mcgrath, Mahoney)

Rick Anderson is former senior advisor to Reform Party Opposition leader Preston Manning; Anne McGrath was Chief of Staff to the late NDP leader Jack Layton; and Richard Mahoney, former Liberal advisor to Rt. Hon. Paul Martin.
Posted date : June 05, 2013

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