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Senate's top spender defends long list of contracts for outside consultants

Manitoba Sen. Marilou McPhedran attends a parliamentary committee in April 2023. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press - image credit)
Manitoba Sen. Marilou McPhedran attends a parliamentary committee in April 2023. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press - image credit)

A non-affiliated senator from Manitoba is the biggest spender in the Red Chamber — but she defends her expenses by saying she's an active parliamentarian who needs a lot of help and wants to pay her consultants fairly.

Marilou McPhedran, named to the Senate by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2016, spends comparatively more than other senators to retain outside aides and consultants.

Since January 2021, McPhedran has awarded $193,881 worth of contracts to part-time and casual employees — mostly students — researchers, government relations professionals and one activist who's written about lowering the federal voting age to 16, a cause the senator has championed in recent years.

In an interview, McPhedran conceded she'd likely spend more than she does now if Senate finance officials didn't routinely deny her requests for more resources.

"I'm someone they say 'no' to a lot because they don't understand how I try to do things," she said.

"I don't do things the way most other senators have been doing it. I'm not interested in that."

McPhedran said she doesn't want to rely solely on full-time staff — she also wants outside experts to work on her various projects.

"I want to be able to create a learning environment using the resources given to me. I think that's completely within the boundaries," she said.

Manitoba Sen. Marilou McPhedran is seen at an April 2022 press conference on Parliament Hill.
Manitoba Sen. Marilou McPhedran is seen at an April 2022 press conference on Parliament Hill.

Manitoba Sen. Marilou McPhedran takes part in an April 2022 press conference on Parliament Hill. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The Winnipeg senator is also known for spending more than her colleagues on travel. She posted trip expenses that totalled more than $54,000 in the last three months of 2022, according to Senate data.

However, some of those trips occurred in previous months. She spent $13,405.60 on travel in that quarter.

Some of the earlier trips — including, for example, a October 2021 Winnipeg-Ottawa-Victoria-Nanaimo-Winnipeg swing that cost about $5,100 for flights — were from an earlier period that were only processed by the Senate in the October-December 2022 period.

Since July 2022, McPhedran has posted travel expenses worth $108,082.

Again, some of the travel occurred earlier and was only processed in the last year.

The travel log shows she's a relatively frequent traveller, with flights to a conference in Victoria, an event in Truro and Halifax, N.S., trips to Montreal and Quebec, Kingston and Sudbury, Ont., Vancouver, Toronto, multiple visits to the United Nations in New York, among others since since July 1, 2022.

That's in addition to the flights between Winnipeg, her hometown, and Ottawa, where the Senate sits.

Under the Senate's travel policy, senators are entitled to fly business class — which can lead to pricey fares paid for by taxpayers.

McPhedran's recent flight to Victoria for a conference cost more than $5,000.

While she dips into the federal treasury more often than others, McPhedran is also among the most transparent senators when it comes to financial disclosure.

'A rigorous review'

She posts a detailed statement on her Facebook page whenever there's a new expenses report published by the Senate administration.

The senator spent nearly an hour with CBC News explaining in granular detail the largest expenses she's incurred over the last two years.

All of the expenses have also been approved by Senate finance officials, a process she describes as "a rigorous review."

Sen. Marilou McPhedran arrives at a House of Commons committee meeting in April.
Sen. Marilou McPhedran arrives at a House of Commons committee meeting in April.

Sen. Marilou McPhedran arrives at a House of Commons committee meeting in April, 2023. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press)

In addition to her work to lower the voting age, McPhedran has been leading a push for institutional reform in the Senate, particularly on matters of harassment and abuse.

She also campaigns for safe sport and has denounced the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) by organizations like Hockey Canada.

Those initiatives cost money, the senator said.

Of the nearly $200,000 McPhedran's office has budgeted for contracts from January 2021 to June 2023, about $113,000 has been paid out, according to figures supplied by her office.

There are three open contracts remaining, McPhedran's office said, with a maximum value of about $27,000.

'The spending is high'

Those contract staffing costs are in addition to the salary paid to McPhedran's full-time parliamentary affairs adviser.

"Yes, the spending is high but I don't think any other senator has had 50-plus young people come through their office," she said, referring to job opportunities for young people and recent graduates.

Among the recipients of McPhedran's spending is Syntax, an Ottawa-based lobbying and communications firm that has been advising her on how best to spend the three years she has left in the Senate before mandatory retirement in July 2026. That contract is valued at $30,000.

Last year, the government accused McPhedran of distributing questionable letters to would-be Afghan refugees looking to flee that country after the Taliban takeover — a charge she strongly denies, insisting her efforts were sanctioned by the chief of staff to a federal cabinet minister.

That "nightmare," as she called it, nearly derailed her other work in the Red Chamber, McPhedran said.

Syntax has been advising her on how to recover from that experience, she said.

"I was really battered and I was sensitized to how so much of my time last year was spent just trying to respond to this cowardly act of referring the matter to the RCMP," she said.

"I sat down with Syntax and I said, 'These are the women I want to work with.' And they helped build a three-year strategic plan. I'm a feminist, activist, human rights lawyer and now senator — I'm very willing to take advice on strategic decisions."

Other senators also hire outside consultants.

Earlier this year, Conservative Sen. Elizabeth Marshall retained the firm Government Analytics for $15,000 at taxpayers' expense. Conservative Sen. Percy Mockler paid the same sum to the same company.

Kris Sims speaks for the Canadian Taxpayers' Federation, an interest group that calls for smaller government and lower spending.

'Is this really necessary?'

"Just because senators sit in the royal chamber doesn't mean they need to act like royalty," Sims told CBC News.

"The affordability crisis for working people is real. Senators need to take a hard look at their expenses right now and say, 'Is this really necessary?'"

She said McPhedran's reliance on outside consultants is "really concerning," given taxpayers already pay for a complement of nearly 500 Senate public servants.

"Taxpayers pay for every nickel of this. This isn't some magical funding pot that senators can turn to whenever they want. This costs real people real money. Some senators are getting a little too comfortable, thinking they're entitled to their entitlements and they're not," Sims said.

"Senators are there to offer sober second thought and review legislation. They're not paid to globe-trot on our dime and endlessly give contracts to outside people for their own betterment."

A spokesperson for the Senate's committee on internal economy, budgets and administration (CIBA) declined to comment on McPhedran's spending.

"Senators are responsible for their expenses and for explaining how their contracts support their parliamentary functions," Alison Korn said in a media statement.

McPhedran also has hired an Ottawa law firm — Conway Baxter Wilson LLP — at up to $10,000 a year to provide her with parliamentary procedural advice. However, McPhredran says payments to the firm totaled just $1,770 between January 2021 and July 2023.

McPhedran said that as a non-affiliated senator, she doesn't enjoy some of the same privileges that Conservative, Progressive and Independent senators enjoy as members of a caucus. She said the law firm is providing her with extra support.

Dave Meslin, the creative director of Unlock Democracy Canada and the author of Teardown: Rebuilding Democracy from the Ground Up, has been contracted by McPhedran's office to deliver consultation services at about $24,000 a year. Meslin is helping the senator with her push to lower the voting age.

The other contracts include agreements to hire mostly younger workers for short periods of time to help on particular projects, McPhedran said.

She said recent graduates are sometimes exploited by their employers — or they're forced to work for no pay to gain experience.

McPhedran said she chooses to pay her younger staff, unless their work is for school credits.

She said that when she was first appointed, she promised Trudeau she would help to revitalize the Senate's image by making its work better known among young people and seeking more of their input on how government should work.

"I have a limited term as a senator — this can't end with me. Our democracy is in trouble and one of the things we need to do is revitalize it, engage with youth and actually build a movement of intergenerational leadership," McPhedran said.

"Every time I can engage a young person and help them navigate the parliamentary system and give them support and encouragement and feedback and resources, I'm investing in our democracy."

As for her travel expenses, McPhedran said she frequently engages with civil society groups that she thinks deserve face-time with a parliamentarian.

She pointed to a recent meeting with South Sudanese activists in Winnipeg who are organizing for peace.

It would be unfair to ask groups like this to cover her travel costs, she said, because they don't have a lot of money on hand.

"I see my job as being available to civil society organizations. That's my responsibility. And they would never be able to pay for me," she said.