OTTAWA — When Moncton’s Pascal Raiche-Nogue wanted to know how often senators from New Brunswick showed up for work, he found it near impossible to pull back the curtain on their attendance.
The reporter for weekly newspaper L’Etoile was told that he would have to physically come to Ottawa to look through the Senate attendance register, fat red binders with forms filed monthly by each senator.
The register, developed in 1998 following the scandal around truant Liberal Andrew Thompson, remains stubbornly stuck in pre-Internet, pre-open government times. The Senate website offers no information on how to access the registry or even where it is, although communications staff are helpful when one does arrive to take a peek in the downtown office building.
Another public registry, detailing the financial and business interests of senators, has only been available four hours per weekday at the Office of the Senate Ethics Officer in Ottawa. The Senate voted in May to make the registry public, but the office said the transition won’t be complete until 2013.
Unlike the House of Commons, Senate proceedings are still not televised, and there is no way to easily search Senate votes or daily debates using an online database.
“I find it completely shocking. Here’s a taxpayer-funded institution that’s supposedly core to our democracy and yet, this institution is trying to make its information as difficult as possible to access,” said David Eaves, a Canadian open government activist.
“For an institution that is suffering from a certain amount of perceived democratic deficit, it doesn’t feel like a particularly smart move.”
Compared with the House of Commons, the Senate has been resistant to any effort to move information online, or to make it easier to navigate on the web, Eaves said.
“It seems like they act like a secret society, which I guess in their minds they are,” said Charlie Angus, the access-to-information critic for the NDP, which supports abolishing the Senate. “They don’t see themselves as accountable, they don’t have to go back to an electorate.
“You can be a deadbeat MP, but you do have to go back to your people every three or four years and explain why you’re a deadbeat.”
A spokeswoman for government Senate leader Marjory LeBreton said she was unavailable and her office had no comment.
LeBreton has asked a Senate committee to review the rules around Senate attendance, but it’s unclear if the review includes the accessibility of the register.
As Raiche-Nogue in Moncton discovered, information about the Senate can also be confusing.
On his quest to see the attendance register, he had been directed to seek out daily journals published online that list which senators were in the chamber on a given day.
But the journals do not note whether a senator was absent because of illness or because they were away on public business — two reasons that wouldn’t count against their attendance duties.
“They get very miffed; it’s like, ”Who are these peons who are peeking in our frosted-glass windows at how we spend our evenings?“’ said Angus.
“If they’re reviewing our legislation, then they have to go to another level of accountability to ensure that Canadians can see there’s some value to them.”
Senators are fined $250 per day once they deplete a bank of 21 leave days. That bank balance is not noted in the journals either.
The Canadian Press reported in late June that Conservative Sen. Patrick Brazeau had the worst attendance record of the current parliamentary session based on records filed up to April.
Updated records for May show that Liberal Sen. Romeo Dallaire has tied with Brazeau for the most days missed.
Brazeau has said his absences are due to a personal matter, while Dallaire — a retired Canadian Forces lieutenant-general — puts them down to overseas research and public engagements.