Senators bill taxpayers for Ottawa living expenses despite owning area homes

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Canada Politics
The country would benefit from a made-in-Canada energy policy, says Senator Mike Duffy.

If you need more evidence of why the Senate gets no respect, look no further than the flap over some members of the Upper Chamber are finessing the rules on Ottawa living expenses.

The latest to be caught taking extra bucks from taxpayers' pockets are Conservative Senator Mike Duffy and Liberal Mac Harb, both outed by the Ottawa Citizen.

The Citizen's Glen McGregor reports Duffy has claimed more than $33,000 in living allowances since September 2010 to maintain a second home in Ottawa. The Charlottetown-born Duffy counts his cottage in Cavendish, P.E.I., as his principal residence.

The only problem is Duffy, a longtime TV journalist covering Parliament Hill, has lived in Ottawa since the 1970s, the Citizen noted. He and his wife live in a home in suburban Kanata on a golf course that they bought five years before he was appointed to the Senate in 2008.

Fun fact: Duffy is one of three former CTV journalists in the Senate. Conservative Pamela Wallin was also appointed in 2008 and Liberal Jim Munson, fired by CTV News in 2001 after a 20-year career, was named to the Senate in 2003 by then-prime minister Jean Chretien after a one-year stint as press secretary.

Ironically, CTV News revealed last month that Conservative Sen. Patrick Brazeau has also drawn $20,000 a year in Ottawa living allowances, despite living with a girlfriend in a rented Gatineau home. He claimed his father's house in hometown Maniwaki, 130 kilometres from the capital, as his principal residence, even though neighbours in the small town told CTV News they almost never saw him.

[ Related: Patrick Brazeau's Senate housing allowance questioned ]

Duffy, a longtime Ottawa insider, dismissed suggestions he was double-dipping, saying he bought the Cavendish cottage 15 years ago and has spent $100,000 turning it into a year-round residence.

"The other option is to stay in a hotel (in Ottawa), and I assume the housing allowance is in lieu," Duffy told the Citizen. "I have done nothing wrong, and am frankly tired of your B.S.."

Conservative Senator David Tkachuk, head of the Senate's board of internal economy, told the Citizen that Duffy's claiming of housing expenses are entirely within the rules. He believes there's no reason for Duffy not to claim the housing expenses in Ottawa.

"Why wouldn't he?" said Tkachuk. "When you travel to Ottawa, you get expensed for living in Ottawa. In his case, he has a home here, so he would charge off whatever the daily rate is."

Harb, a former Ottawa Centre MP who like Munson, was named to the Senate by Chretien in 2003, claims a home in Pembroke, a 90-minute drive west of Ottawa, as his primary residence, according to the Citizen. At roughly 120 kilometres, it's just outside the 100-kilometre radius that renders senators eligible for the $21,000 annual stipend for living expenses in the capital.

Harb wouldn't respond to the Citizen's questions about his expense claims but his executive assistant, Shari Duffin, said he was following the rules.

"He does have a residence a hefty drive away from the city," she said. "He has certainly has filed everything in accordance with the rules of Senate."

Senate rules allow out-of-town senators to claim reimbursement for hotel costs or monthly rent, as long as they don't lease from family members, the Citizen said. Those who own secondary residences in the National Capital Region can be reimbursed at a daily rate established by the board, limited to $900 a month.

Tkachuk said there is no test to determine whether a senator actually lives in his or her primary residence.

"Your primary residence is what you say your primary residence is," he told the Citizen. "It's where you file your income taxes from, where you get your mail."

Other local senators, including Munson, fellow Liberal Colin Kenny and Conservatives Marjory LeBreton and Vern White, do not claim the allowance, the Citizen noted.

[ Related: Senator Pamela Wallin defends the upper house as Canada's 'second pair of eyes and ears']

Duffy, Harb and Brazeau may be within the rules technically but the optics aren't great.

It may remind some Canadians of the 2009 housing-expenses scandal that engulfed Britain's Parliament, where MPs and lords were revealed to have fiddled the rules to fatten their wallets. The revelations resulted in politicians being suspended and some prosecuted, and the rules regarding expense claims reformed.

In an editorial Tuesday, the Citizen argued that it's also time to rewrite the rules for the Senate.