OTTAWA – The Conservative government is scrambling to figure out if the suspensions of three of its own senators actually means they’re entirely off the public payroll, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper claims.
Tuesday’s suspensions of Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau for allegedly fraudulent expense claims are without precedent and the government still hasn’t figured out all the ramifications.
Among the lingering questions: Is Duffy eligible for a disability allowance? Will the trio’s time in political purgatory, as much as two years, count toward the six years of service needed to be eligible for a generous parliamentary pension?
Good questions — and it’s up to the Senate to answer them, said Treasury Board President Tony Clement, the chief guardian of the public purse.
“You’re asking very legitimate questions and there should be answers to those questions,” Clement said Wednesday, stressing that the Senate runs its own internal affairs.
“I honestly don’t know the answer to that. I know that there’s a legal opinion that is being sought.”
Claude Carignan, government leader in the Senate, called the questions “technicalities” that will be sorted out by the chamber’s administration.
The intention of the suspension motions passed on Tuesday was to suspend Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau “without pay, without any benefits … including (the) pension plan,” he said. While Senate officials will apply “the spirit and the letter” of those motions, he allowed that there might be some legal impediments.
“It’s the first time in 150 years that we have this type of suspension. It could have perhaps little technical problems so we will see what the administration (does), if they have technical problems,” Carignan said.
“But all that we can do to suspend the benefits and the salary, within the parameters of the law, we will do it.”
In fact, the three are still entitled to health, dental and life insurance benefits _ a provision added by Carignan last week to make the suspensions more palatable to some of his Conservative colleagues.
Tory Sen. Don Meredith, who abstained from Tuesday’s vote, said he hopes the suspensions will not adversely impact his three former colleagues’ pension eligibility.
“I think we need to begin to support our colleagues as they’re on suspension, especially their economic and social state, especially Sen. Brazeau,” Meredith said, pointing out that Brazeau has young children, including one with a disability.
Wallin’s lawyer, Terrence O’Sullivan, told Global News that his client will consider legal action if the Senate attempts to tamper with her pension eligibility.
Liberal Senate leader James Cowan said the confusion is further evidence that the government rushed through the suspensions to solve a political problem, without giving any thought to the possible consequences.
“It says that they’ve been making this whole process up as they go along.”
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, however — an outspoken champion of abolishing the Senate entirely — said he “couldn’t care less” about the pension and disability allowance questions.
“You’re asking me to comment on the flowers in the tapestry when we want to roll up the red carpet,” he shrugged.
Another question lingers: how will the Senate collect reimbursement from Brazeau for $48,000 in disallowed living expenses if he’s no longer collecting a salary?
Brazeau has steadfastly insisted he did nothing wrong and has refused to repay the money. In July, the chamber began garnisheeing 20 per cent of his Senate paycheque. Now, it’s unclear how, or even if, the Senate will get any more money out of him.
“He may have other income … I just have no idea,” Cowan said.
Wallin has voluntarily repaid almost $150,000 in disallowed travel expenses. Duffy’s $90,000 in ineligible living expenses were repaid last winter by Nigel Wright, Harper’s chief of staff at the time.
As of Tuesday’s vote, the three are not allowed to sit in the Senate, keep their offices, employ staff or conduct any Senate work.
Their suspensions are for the duration of the parliamentary sitting, which could continue until 2015 – the same year in which Wallin, Duffy and Brazeau, all appointed in early 2009, would ordinarily have become eligible for a pension.
Gregory Thomas, federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers’ Association, said
“there’s nothing in the legislation” to suggest the suspensions will impact the trio’s pension eligibility, provided they continue to make contributions.
Duffy, the eldest of the three at 67, would be immediately eligible in 2015 for an annual pension of $58,264, according to the federation.
“There’s nothing in the parliamentary pension legislation that contemplates somebody being suspended,” Thomas said. The law deals only with those members who are expelled, he added.
“All it says is that members have to contribute their share of the plan.”
Duffy, who has a heart condition and announced he was taking medical leave just as debate on his proposed suspension began several weeks ago _ could potentially benefit even more, Thomas said.
Under the Parliament of Canada Act, a senator who is 65 or older and incapacitated by a proven medical condition can receive a disability allowance equal to 70 per cent of his or her annual salary — $94,640 per year. The allowance is paid until the senator reaches 75, the age of mandatory retirement from the Senate.
Whether that holds true for a senator who’s been suspended without pay is unclear. But Thomas said he suspects Duffy plans to fight for the allowance, and might make a fuss if the government tries to deny it.
“I don’t think Sen. Duffy cares whether he causes the Senate majority any inconvenience or not.”