Uh, these housing allowance forms are hard ...
“He that is of the opinion money will do everything may well be suspected of doing everything for money.”
— Benjamin Franklin
So, we found out this week that Ottawa has unleashed a raft of professional pennypinchers. Their mission? To crack down on the unemployed in this country and claw back any wayward moneys they might be receiving.
Service Canada investigators have been promised bonus pay if they can each dig up $485,000 a year in employment insurance claims that are fraudulent or otherwise undeserved. It’s nasty work, but hey — somebody’s got to make sure taxpayers’ money isn’t wasted, right?
Well, if that’s the case, perhaps the federal government should unleash its money-sniffing hounds on the Red Chamber. That’s right, the Senate, where for the past few weeks, the important and considered work some of its honest denizens have been doing has been besmirched by the craven actions of a handful of apparent rogues.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not gone all soft on the Senate. There’s an argument to be made that it should be abolished altogether and, at the very least, its members should be elected and not appointed at the whim of the prime minister and in accordance with his political leanings.
But while we have a Senate — in its current form — I think we should acknowledge that there are senators who take their appointments and responsibilities seriously and who approach their roles with vigour. Our own Elizabeth Marshall didn’t miss one day of work last year. They’re not all indolently lounging around the public trough.
On Wednesday, for example, committees of senators were meeting to tackle issues that included cyberbullying, services and benefits for veterans and their families, aboriginal treaty rights, prescription drugs, the Proceeds of Crime and Terrorist Financing Act, the airline industry, and the implication for Canada of political and economic developments in Turkey. Not exactly lightweight fare.
Then you have the likes of Conservative Senator Mike Duffy, who is confused about where he lives.
He purported to reside primarily in Prince Edward Island — the province he represents in the Senate — but was oddly without a health card for that province. Those island breezes must really be good for what ails you.
He was claiming the house he has owned in an Ottawa suburb for years, well before he was appointed to the Senate, as his secondary residence, and so was entitled to up to $21,000 a year in housing and meal expenses.
He’s not the only senator whose spending is being probed, of course. Conservative Senator Pamela Wallin, former Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau and Liberal Senator Mac Harb are among the others.
But what makes Duffy such an easy target is his claim — made after the controversy would not go away — that the housing allowance form he had to fill out was complicated, and he made an honest mistake.
Well, as the Canadian Press reported on Tuesday, that explanation is being roundly dismissed by some of Duffy’s Senate fellows.
Sen. James Cowan, the Liberal leader in the upper chamber, said he filled out the same form and found it straightforward.
“In this declaration of primary and secondary residences, there’s no confusion in my mind,” he told CP reporter Joan Bryden.
The article also noted that “Cowan questions whether senators who don’t live, vote, pay taxes, hold health care cards and driver’s licences in their so-called home provinces are even entitled to sit in the Senate at all.”
The Telegram obtained a copy of the “Declaration of Primary and Secondary Residences,” and even this form-challenged columnist could follow the instructions.
Let’s see, check one of two boxes:
‰ My primary residence is within 100 kilometres from Parliament Hill.
‰ My primary residence is more than 100 kilometres from Parliament Hill.
Are you with us so far, Senator Duffy? If you live primarily in Ontario, as some people allege, you would check the first box, and you’re done with the form. No housing allowance required.
If you actually live in P.E.I., as you initially asserted, you would tick box No. 2 and move on to the next part of the form, where you claim housing allowance for the burden of having to maintain a secondary home near Ottawa.
Duffy ticked box No. 2 and received more than $30,000 in housing subsidies since 2010.
Now he’s saying he made a mistake and is offering to pay the money back, which means that he actually lives … where?
If the answer is Ontario, how can he legitimately represent P.E.I. in the Senate?
Now, the fact that a former journalist is playing duck-and-weave with the media and ignoring questions about taxpayers’ money is disgraceful enough. But for a political appointee to expect us to believe he’s capable of serving in the Senate, yet is incapable of filling out a form, is a bit of a stretch.
Frankly, if an ordinary citizen ended up with money he or she was not entitled to — and did not disclose that fact for a couple of years — they’d face far greater censure than just being told to pay it back. Anyone who has ever caught the attention of the Canada Revenue Agency knows that. (The motto there must surely be “guilty till proven innocent; interest charges apply in either case.”)
Bravo to the Senate for bringing in independent auditors to probe some senators’ spending.
What will be nearly as interesting as the findings is what disciplinary measures — if any — are meted out.
We’ll be watching.
Pam Frampton is a columnist and
The Telegram’s associate managing editor.
She can be reached by email at