On the idea that senators should avoid conflicts of interest…

19Jul10

In her column today, Mia Rabson of the Winnipeg Free Press took a few shots at Liberal and Conservative senators who were absent from the chamber when the vote on the federal budget went down. She included some information that was new to me.

Conservative Hugh Segal recused himself from the vote because he sits on the board of a company the budget could affect.

This has been public knowledge for about a week, it seems. The National Post‘s John Ivison even used Segal’s recusal as a case study, and wrote a whole column about how much outside work senators should be able to do. Here are the first few paragraphs from Ivison’s piece:

Conservative Senators faced some nervous moments on Monday night before they knew for sure they had the numbers to pass their omnibus budget bill, a 48-44 vote squeaker that averted any prospect of a summer election.

The government side was helped by seven Liberal no-shows. But the vote would have been less of a nail-biter for the whips had Conservative Senator Hugh Segal not recused himself from the vote, claiming that his directorship of engineering giant SNC Lavalin might constitute a conflict of interest when it came to the budget’s proposed sale of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (Mr. Segal says he has no idea if SNC will be a bidder but the possibility meant his withdrawal was “the honourable thing to do.”)

I get why Segal recused himself. But let’s let Ivison make another point before I ask my big question.

Mr. Segal is paid $130,000 to sit in the Senate of Canada but augments that sum with directorships in companies like SNC, SunLife Financial and Just Energy Income Trust, which pay him a combined total of up to $300,000 in additional fees.

He’s hardly alone — I spent Tuesday lunchtime trawling through the Public Registry of senators’ outside interests and found that 47 of 104 denizens of our upper chamber top up their salaries with directorships and professional fees. It’s a wonder senators like Pamela Wallin (a director of Porter Airlines, CTV globemedia and Gluskin Sheff, not to mention Chancellor of Guelph University) and Michael Meighen (a director of five investment companies and Chancellor of the University of King’s College in Halifax) find the time to turn up for work on Parliament Hill at all.

I haven’t pored over the list of companies who count senators as directors, but I think there are questions to be asked here.

The last two federal budgets have doled out billions of dollars that have directly or indirectly helped thousands of Canadian companies and organizations.

  • The University of Guelph received $16,817,500 in stimulus funding under the Knowledge Infrastructure Program for the “development of an environmental cluster.” Did Wallin recuse herself from votes on the 2009 budget because of that conflict?
  • King’s College in Nova Scotia received $172,500 in stimulus funding under the Knowledge Infrastructure Program to “replace 10 obsolete heating and air management units that are no longer functioning at Prince Hall.” Did Meighen recuse himself from votes on the 2009 budget because of that conflict?

Those two senators might well have recused themselves. But plenty of others who voted on potential conflicts might not have done the right thing.

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3 Responses to “On the idea that senators should avoid conflicts of interest…”

  1. 1 Ben

    I think the simple fact is that the Liberals didn’t care enough about opposing the bill to show up to vote. I can’t think of a more important bill than the BUDGET – so when DO Liberal senators show up?

  2. Definitely important questions. And there could be all kinds of tactical or strategic (I always forget the difference) issues at play. But here I’m more concerned with the ethical issues.

  3. 3 Lucas

    The problem Nick, as you have pointed out, is that these people aren’t senators as a full time job. It’s s job you are appointed to, not a job you seek and win. They should be held to the same standard as MPs for conflict of interest and lobbying rules.

    I think the larger question is why should Canadians feel right about having someone who was not elected decided our laws? Does that not stand in the face of what we believe as a people? Nepotism and cronyism is not what I want deciding if a budget passes or not.

    A reform in government is needed. Make the senate 59 seats. Five from each province and 3 from each territory. Keep the lower chamber proportionally based by population. That will ensure equally representation in Ottawa. Each province has an equal say in the senate and the house has an equal say by population.

    The senate should be elected, every four years like the house.

    Sadly Canadians are too polite to demand change in government. And we have no leaders who are strong enough to rally people around the idea. Harper is to comfortable with the status quo, Ignatieff is an empty shirt, Jack Layton only has his job because Bob Rae still thinks he can be Liberal leader one day and Elizabeth May will never see the inside of the house of commons outside of a tour.

    As for our current senators,Banks, Carstairs, De Bané, Joyal. and Sibbeston were traveling or on vacation? Why even bother being a senator if you aren’t going to show up? Raymond Lavigne can’t show up because he’s on trial for stealing from the Senate! If this doesn’t prove the Senate is useless and in need of reform, nothing will.

    The senate is a national embarrassment. We may be past the days of senators living in Mexico and showing up once a session so they stilly get paid, but we’re not far past it.


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