Senate scandals: a brief history

Dene Moore
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
Senate scandals: a brief history

Prime Minister Stephen Harper says he will make no more appointments to the country’s scandal-plagued Senate, in an effort to pressure provinces to agree to reforms.

Harper has made that promise before – and gone on to appoint more partisan senators to the upper chamber than any previous prime minister.

But if the promises of Senate reform are a familiar refrain, so are the scandals that prompt them.

Modelled on Britain’s much-maligned House of Lords, the Red Chamber is supposed to be the chamber of “sober second thought.” Yet on more than one occasion, it has been anything but.

“The Senate is a place that seduces everybody,” says J. Patrick Boyer, a former Progressive Conservative MP and author of the book “Our Scandalous Senate.”

“They learn the rules: sip your scotch slowly and stay out of the news and you’re fine.”

The “celebrity senators” appointed by Harper – Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau – have simply shone a spotlight on the upper chamber.

“All of a sudden, all the crappy things that have been going on over in the Senate for decades are coming to light,” Boyer tells Yahoo Canada News.

Indeed, the Senate is no stranger to scandal:

Prohibition promotion — In 1925, at the height of Prohibition, Customs and Excise Minister Jacques Bureau was forced to resign just ahead of an investigation into booze smuggling over the border. At best, Bureau looked the other way; at worst, he took bribes. Liberal prime minister Mackenzie King then appointed Bureau to the Senate.

Beauharnois scandal — In 1931, the director of the Beauharnois Light, Heat and Power Company testified before a parliamentary committee that Liberal senators W.L. McDougald and Andrew Haydon took money to push for the lucrative hydroelectric project on the St. Lawrence River. He also testified that the company donated $700,000 to federal and Quebec Liberal campaigns. McDougald was forced to step down from the Senate and Haydon resigned as campaign treasurer. The investigation found no clear link between the bribes and the Liberal government’s approval of the project.

Sky Shops — In 1976 Liberal senator Louis Giguère was charged along with the president of the National Hockey League, the president of Sky Shops and two other businessmen for attempting to influence the federal government to extend a lease on a duty-free shop at Dorval Airport. Two men, including then NHL president Clarence Campbell, were convicted of paying Giguère a $95,000 bribe but the senator was acquitted of accepting the bribe in a separate trial.

The Siesta Senator — Liberal Andrew Thompson earned the nickname from the Reform Party when it came to light in 1998 that he had shown up for work in the upper chamber just 47 times in 14 years. He was living in Mexico. Thompson was suspended by the Senate.

Eric Berntson — The Progressive Conservative senator resigned his seat in 2000 following a fraud conviction stemming from his time as deputy premier of Saskatchewan. He was sentenced to one year in prison and ordered to repay $42,000 in false expenses he claimed between 1987 and 1990.

Raymond Lavigne — The former Liberal MP turned senator resigned in March 2011, after he was found guilty of breach of trust and fraud. Court heard that Lavigne claimed travel expenses for trips taken by his staff and had staff members work on his personal farm while on taxpayer time.

Senators earn about $130,000 a year. Over the past five years, the number of days the upper chamber has sat has ranged from a low of 64 to a high of 88. They are allowed 21 days of absence. For the 2011-2012 fiscal year, it cost approximately $90 million to keep the Senate running.

“Abolition is the only way to go,” says Boyer.

“This isn’t a few bad apples, which was the initial defence… It’s the barrel that’s rotten because of the culture of privilege that has gone on there.”

But Jeremy Webber, dean of law at the University of Victoria and a constitutional expert, says it would be a mistake to think of the Senate as riddled with scandal.

“Most senators are people of real integrity,” he tells Yahoo Canada News.

“The problem isn’t so much that there are scandals as what allows those scandals, which is a lack of public accountability.”

The upper chamber is not structured to provide any democratic accountability or legitimacy, he says.

“Although people can’t agree on an alternative structure, they can agree that the current structure is not defensible,” he says.