Canada: The Wages Of Sin: Disgraced Senator Meredith Resigns … But Retains Sizeable Pension

Last Updated: May 18 2017
Article by Devry Smith Frank LLP

Looking back – admittedly with the benefit of hindsight – this ugly drama seems to have had only two possible endings: (1) disgraced Senator Don Meredith would either become the first sitting member to be expelled from Canada's upper house, or (2) he would pre-empt that outcome by choosing to resign. On Tuesday, one day ahead of the vote on his expulsion, Mr. Meredith chose the latter. (For details, see our previous blog)

Well, almost. As observed by the CBC's John Paul Tasker, the letter announcing his decision did not actually mention the word 'resignation'. He referred only to his intended "absence from the Senate", expressing hopes that it "will allow the senators to focus their good work on behalf of all Canadians." But initial vagaries aside, his decision has now been formalized – as required, the Governor General received a signed copy of Meredith's letter to on Wednesday.

Meredith keeps his pension

And there is very good reason for Meredith to formally resign. By resigning rather than being expelled, Mr. Meredith will be eligible for a considerably larger pension. Unsurprisingly, this hasn't gone over particularly well. For one thing, this represents a strong counter-incentive for similarly-placed senators to ever face the music. Resigning, as quietly as possible, avoids the (unprecedented) humiliation of expulsion, and preserves the financial fruits of one's service to the Senate, tainted though it might be. As noted in a previous blog, Mr. Meredith did not face criminal charges.

Many will wonder if this fate is appropriate given the gravity of his misconduct. The conclusions reached by the Senate's Ethics Committee in it's May 2 report certainly painted a dire picture:

Senator Meredith's conduct has compromised his ability to continue to serve as a member of the Senate. Senator Meredith has shown a serious lapse in judgement which undermined "the especial trust and confidence" placed on him when he was summoned to the Senate. He has abused his privileged position of authority and trust by engaging in behaviour that is incompatible with his office. He has brought disrepute to himself and to the institution. Your committee is of the opinion that Senator Meredith's misconduct has demonstrated that he is unfit to serve as a senator. His presence in the chamber would in itself discredit the institution. No lesser sanction than expulsion would repair the harm he has done to the Senate. (at page 13; see the full report here.)

As reported in the National Post, the Liberal government is placing the blame squarely with the then-Stephen Harper Conservatives. Scott Brison, President of the Treasury Board which is responsible for parliamentary pensions, made clear that his department has no legal authority to deny a resigning senator their pension. This, he explained, would require legislative amendments which would not, in any case, apply retroactively to Mr. Meredith. The government's hands may be tied. Whether we can expect legislation to avoid this scenario in the future remains to be seen. It might be a matter of how quickly the dust settles.

According to the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, Meredith stands to collect about $24,420 annually. He could, they estimate, ultimately collect a total of $1.1 million. Had he been expelled, he would only have ben able to collect what he personally contributed during his tenure, as a lump sum.

Constitutional impact

Meredith's last-minute resignation may also render moot – for now – the constitutional question of whether the Senate even has the authority to expel a sitting member. Meredith's letter to the Senate specifically noted that "[t]his is a constitutional fight in which I will not engage." Whatever other motivations he may have, Meredith will undoubtedly be content to avoid being the subject of a precedent-setting court decision that defines the penalties for senatorial misconduct.

The Senate is currently operating on the basis of Senate Law Clerk Michel Patrice's analysis, which holds that the Constitution Act, 1867 does empower the Senate to expel a member. It might be a question worth answering definitively, especially given the microscope still hovering over the Senate after years of scandal and bad press.

Whatever the legal foundation for the vote that might have been, and whatever we think about the pension he'll receive, Mr. Meredith will no longer represent the Canadian public. His interaction with the Senate will now be limited to the two further, ongoing investigations – this time for alleged workplace harassment, inter alia.

While we might wish him well, few will mourn his departure.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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