OTTAWA: Canada’s prime minister on Tuesday renewed calls for Senate reform, following a flurry of resignations, including his own chief of staff, over an ongoing spending scandal.
“The Senate status quo is not acceptable,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper told a room full of Conservative Party faithful. “Canadians want the Senate to change.”
However, Harper did not speak directly to the growing controversy over housing and travel expense claims that has embroiled his government and forced his right-hand man, Nigel Wright, to resign on Sunday.
Wright quit suddenly after revealing that he paid Can$90,000 (US$87,700) to Sen. Mike Duffy in order to help Duffy repay funds he had allegedly wrongly claimed as Senate expenses. After the repayment, Duffy stopped cooperating with an audit, leading to opposition cries of a cover-up and demands for a federal police probe.
Duffy quit the Conservative caucus on Thursday and now sits as an independent, but the Tories are calling for his resignation from the Senate too.
On Friday, Conservative Sen. Pamela Wallin also announced she was stepping aside from the Conservative caucus, amid an audit of her travel expenses.
“I don’t think any of you are going to be very surprised to hear that I’m not happy. I’m very upset about some conduct we have witnessed, the conduct of some parliamentarians and the conduct of my own office,” Harper told his caucus.
“Anyone who wants to use public office for their own benefit should make other plans or, better yet, leave this room,” he said.
Two other senators—a Liberal senator and a former Conservative who was booted from the Tory caucus following his arrest in February for alleged rape—are also being audited, but have denied wrongdoing.
All three Conservative senators involved were appointed by Harper, but it was Wright’s mea culpa that shocked Canadians as it marked the first scandal to reach into the prime minister’s office since Harper was elected in 2006. Harper has long sought to reform the Senate, accusing rivals of stacking it with party hacks, organizers and supporters.
Under the current system, senators from various regions of Canada are appointed by the governor general on the advice of the prime minister and can hold their seats until they turn 75.
In 2006, Harper promised to impose term limits and introduce direct elections. But he faced seemingly insurmountable hurdles, including needing a politically risky constitutional amendment as well as the backing of Canada’s 10 provincial governments—who oppose the possible dilution of their share of seats—and the senators, themselves.