Real Senate scandal? Senators who sit on private boards, it’s a huge conflict

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Notwithstanding all Sen. Nancy Ruth’s good work, last week’s cheese outburst will sadly constitute her Senate legacy.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on April 2, 2015.

Notwithstanding all Sen. Nancy Ruth’s good work, last week’s cheese outburst will sadly constitute her Senate legacy.

OTTAWA—Let them eat cheese. Or maybe not, according to the latest maladroit sortie from the Senate.

Senator Nancy Ruth is known for blunt candour. She is someone who charts her own course, Camembert be damned.

A twice-failed Progressive Conservative candidate, she was appointed to the Senate by Liberal prime minister Paul Martin.

The Senate’s first openly declared lesbian, Ruth crossed party lines in the last provincial election to support Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne.

Nancy Ruth eschews the normal Canadian convention of having a last name.

She traded in the Jackman nomenclature she was born with for a Senate appellation that combines her first and middle names.

Her family tree boasts an impressive, bipartisan political pedigree spanning three generations. Her grandfather was the leader of the Ontario Liberal Party, her father was a Progressive Conservative Member of Parliament, and her brother Hal Jackman, is a respected philanthropist and former lieutenant governor or Ontario.

Nancy Ruth has been active politically and financially in support of quality causes for years. She founded the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund, (LEAF) the Canadian Women’s Foundation and a women’s studies chair at Mount Saint Vincent University.

LEAF is probably the single most significant catalyst for women’s equality challenges to the Canadian status quo.

She sits on the advisory board of Equal Voice, a national, non-partisan body devoted to promoting the election of more women to the House of Commons.

Notwithstanding all her good work, last week’s cheese outburst will sadly constitute her Senate legacy.

Anyone familiar with the current climate of fear in the Red Chamber will understand how Nancy Ruth’s boiling point was reached.

But the public has zero tolerance for high-flying, cheese-eating politicians, so the defence of her breakfast expense claim fell on deaf ears.

How much of the so-called Senate scandal is really based on fact, and how much is simply the result of a political pileup against an outdated institution?

Senator Mike Duffy’s criminal trial starts this week complete with eye-popping, hand-wringing revelations that will go right to the Prime Minister’s Office.

Pre-emptive PMO damage control started in earnest last week.

According to news reports, the Senate’s criminal net is spreading wider, with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police filing documents to build a case against Senator Pamela Wallin. Cpl. Rudy Exantus outlined 150 misreported invoices, including expensing of a trip to Toronto for an election night broadcast as a Conservative pundit, a partisan act the police claim is a personal activity.

That statement itself exposes a grave police misunderstanding of the work of a Member of Parliament.

If television appearances are deemed “personal” in nature, not a single leader should be allowed to defend party policies on air except from the foyer of the House of Commons.

And if political broadcast attendees are guilty of misuse of Senate funds, what about the parties that vet panel participation?

How can Wallin be guilty of expensing a political appearance but party event organizers are somehow innocent of participating in the fraud?

That makes about as much sense as the police charging Mike Duffy for receiving a benefit, and exonerating Nigel Wright for paying it.

A simple review of the nature of the expense claims filed with the court, will reveal something a lot more scandalous than misfiled expense claims.

Senators sitting on private boards put themselves in an untenable conflict of interest, not with the cost of a plane ticket but with the decision-making neutrality required of public office holders.

Wallin sat on the board of CTV, and Porter Airlines, amongst others. Both those organizations are federally chartered and depend on the national government for their licences to broadcast and fly.

The real Senate scandal is that Parliamentarians are even allowed to sit on private boards while they are appointed to serve the public interest.

This conflict is huge, and has nothing to do with bad cheese trays.

No doubt, opaque accounting methods, and sketchy conflict rules are the entrails of a bygone era.

But a lack of transparency and clarity in Senate rule making is sinking the whole system.

It is just so much easier to simply trash the Senate than to clean it up.

The Nancy Ruth Camembert cauldron last week made for great copy.

And it became another nail in the coffin of Senate credibility.

Her impolitic comments reinforced the image of an out of touch Senate elite.

Our collective obsession with eating habits and disinterest in real Senate substance is painful to observe.

But that’s politics, eh?

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.