Pamela Wallin audit spurs debate about what is ‘Senate business’

Senator Pamela Wallin (File photo courtesy of the Canadian Press)

What is Senate business?

It doesn't seem that complicated of a question: common sense suggests that it's any business directly related to the work a senator does in the upper chamber.

But, as Senator Wallin's audit proves, some of our politicians live in another world where common sense doesn't prevail.

On Tuesday, the audit report into Wallin's expense claims was released to the public.

The Deloitte auditors reviewed Wallin's $532,508 in total travel expenses from January 2009 to September 2012 and found that at least $121,348 of that was falsely claimed. The inappropriate expenses included trips for personal and private business.

She also used taxpayer dollars for several partisan events.

"Senator Wallin flew from Ottawa to Toronto on September 18, 2010," the auditors noted about one instance.

"The Senator's Office represented that on the same day the Senator was the keynote speaker at a riding event in Kitchener, where she spoke about Canada's role in Afghanistan and Canada no longer being a spectator nation. Our research indicates that this is a Conservative Party fundraising event, and therefore, this does not appear to be Senate business."

Wallin's lawyers argued that attending such events is 'Senate work' because she was speaking about Afghanistan (Wallin was chair of the Senate defence committee).

The Senator even charged taxpayers for travelling to 'networking events' in Toronto, suggesting that as an "activist senator" she needed to be "accessible and in touch with as many 'communities of interest' as possible."

[ Related: Details of Senator Pamela Wallin’s “troubling” audit released, to be forwarded to the RCMP ]

The Senators' do have specific rules about what travel expenses they can and cannot claim.

Here is the Senator's Travel Policy from 2012:

Purpose of travelFunded?
- Between the senators’ province or territory and the NCR to attend Senate sittings, committee meetings, and/or to carry out other parliamentary functionsYes
- Participation in party activities that are related to the work of the Senator or the Senate and its proceedings.Yes
- Participation in party activities that are purely partisan matters such as election activities.No
- To receive an honorary degree, award, medal or other similar honour in recognition of Senate work and parliamentary accomplishmentsYes
-To receive an honorary degree, award, medal or other similar honour in recognition of life-time achievements not directly related to Senate workNo
-“Life events” of friends and family members: weddings, anniversary celebrations, hospital visits, birthdays, graduations, etc.No
- Funerals of dignitaries, senior government officials, parliamentary colleagues, and other VIPs.Yes
- Funerals of friends and family members (other than those included above)No
- Community events such as festivals, BBQs, parades.Yes
- Speaking engagements on topics related to Senate work or of public interest whether attending as an invitee or upon own initiative and receiving no additional remuneration from a source outside of the Senate.Yes
- Speaking engagements on topics of personal interest to the senator whether attending as an invitee or upon own initiative.No
- Speaking engagements on any topic for which the senator is receiving additional remuneration from a source outside of the SenateNo
- Participation in Parliamentary Friendship Group activitiesYes
- Speaking engagements or attendance at fundraising (events other than those organized by the Senate.)No
- Attendance in charity and other volunteer workNo
- Attendance at book launches, art exhibits, theatre performances, concerts, etc in support of artists, writers, and performers.No
- Attendance at training sessions, seminars, or conferences related to the senator’s professional qualifications and/or personal interest but not related to Senate workNo
- Reuniting with dependent children and/or designated traveller at a location other than the senators’ primary residence or in the NCR (summer cottage, 3rd residence, vacation accommodation, child’s university)No
- Travel for personal reasons such as vacations, sight-seeing excursions, sporting events, etc.No
- Meetings and activities related to the senator’s business or private interests (e.g. board of directors’ meetings of companies or charitable organizations; meetings with clients, suppliers, and other stakeholders; etc.)No

There is some debate — even among Senators — about whether these rules are new or just a clarification of the existing principles.

While the rules seem to be clear, Gregory Thomas of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation argues that there is still some a room for creative explanations — particularly with senators using taxpayer money to attend partisan events.

"What politicians commonly do is to arrange Commons or Senate business – touring a senior citizens home if they’re on a House or Senate committee on senior citizens, for example to coincide with political business – a big party fundraiser that takes place in the evening of the same day," he told Yahoo! Canada News.

"It’s a bit of subterfuge, but it’s not rocket science. Find something non-partisan and official to do on the trip."

[ Related: What’s in store for Senators Duffy, Harb and Brazeau? ]

The CTF has launched a petition drive calling for a referendum on abolishing the Senate.

After the Wallin audit, and the pending Auditor General's review of all Senators' expenses, the CTF should have no trouble getting the numbers of signatures they desire.

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