Controversy over senator residency misses the real point

Since the glory days of political journalism, the 1972-73 Washington Post pursuit of the Watergate scandal that brought down a president, there has been a simple political journalism credo:

Follow the money.

Where the political money flows, the action is happening whether excess spending, illegal robocalls, whatever.

However, sometimes following the money distracts reporters from the real story and that has been happening in the latest brouhaha over the Canadian Senate.

Media focus has been on the money — did Conservative Mike Duffy or Liberal Mac Harb illegally claim housing costs in Ottawa during Senate sittings even though they actually live in the capital?

In Duffy’s case, yes, because he already has admitted it. In Harb’s case, a Senate committee continues to investigate, although as an MP and community activist he has lived in Ottawa most of his life before buying a “principal residence” in Pembroke, just far enough outside Ottawa to meet the 100-kilometre rule for when capital expenses can be claimed.

Then there are Saskatchewan senator Pamela Wallin’s travel expenses and were they justified, trips back to her “home” of Wadena, Sask., or just junkets for Conservative promotion or to go to her homes in Toronto and New York on the taxpayer dime?

These expenses, tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars that are big sums for the average person, really are a diversion from the real issue.

How many current senators with their $132,000-per-year-with-perks-until-age-75 really qualify under constitutional rules about Senate eligibility?

Despite Prince Edward Island senator Mike Duffy’s confusion over filling out a form about where he lives, the issue is quite simple.

The Constitution Act of 1982 requires senators to “reside” in the area they represent in the Senate.

Any sensible reading of that requirement (lawyers of course can make common sense seem grey and uncertain) would require a senator to have their primary resident in the province they represent: Saskatchewan for Wallin, P.E.I. for Duffy, Alberta for retired senator Joyce Fairbairn and on it goes.

How much time they spend there is irrelevant. Principal residence means where you pay taxes, where you vote, where your health card is issued, where your driver’s license is issued.

Otherwise, you do not “reside” in the district you represent. By the Canadian constitution, that means you are not eligible to be a senator from that province.

The protestations from senators under the gun is that they spend time there, they have a “residence” there (which is far from being a resident) and that’s where their heart is.

The constitution doesn’t specify where senatorial hearts, kidneys or spleens should reside, just where senators should.

If this “Senate reform” government took the issue seriously, the prime minister would make sure Conservative grandees were eligible before they are appointed.

And if the Senate and media quit obsessing on the money and considered the constitutional legitimacy of senators, moving trucks would be busy in Ottawa and Stephen Harper would have many more vacancies to fill.

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