Red cham­ber rot

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Don­ald Benham

THE Se­nate ex­penses scan­dal that has trans­fixed Cana­di­ans gives them the per­fect op­por­tu­nity to rid them­selves of this “colo­nial relic,” J. Patrick Boyer ar­gues per­sua­sively in his lat­est book. A pro­lific au­thor of more than 20 books deal­ing with Cana­dian pol­i­tics and his­tory, Boyer draws on his ex­pe­ri­ence as a for­mer Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive MP, con­sti­tu­tional lawyer and po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor.

For­tu­nately, he’s also a jour­nal­ist, bring­ing a deft turn of phrase to what has been seen in the past as a deadly-dull topic: Se­nate re­form. All that changed over the past year, as Cana­di­ans came to know only too well what the pre­vi­ously over­looked and un­der-re­ported red cham­ber and its denizens looked like. Boyer traces the scan­dal to Prime Min­is­ter Stephen Harper’s de­ci­sion to ap­point “star” sen­a­tors: For­mer TV jour­nal­ists Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin, and abo­rig­i­nal leader Patrick Brazeau. He paints sur­pris­ingly sym­pa­thetic por­traits of all three sen­a­tors. Boyer re­minds us, in a way that Wallin’s for­mer friends and col­leagues in the news me­dia never did, that she was a ground­break­ing jour­nal­ist and then a great pro­moter of Canada as con­sul-gen­eral in New York. Duffy had the face that ev­ery­one trusted to deliver a fair look at na­tional pol­i­tics, first on CBC and then with his own shows on CTV. Perched right out­side the Commons door, he would sim­ply pull the newsmakers of the day onto his set and thrust a mi­cro­phone at them. Brazeau helped build an or­ga­ni­za­tion to speak for all the abo­rig­i­nal Cana­di­ans who do not live on a re­serve. Their spe­cific prob­lems re­volve around the claim of a prin­ci­pal res­i­dence in the prov­ince they rep­re­sent and thus the need to claim an al­lowance for a sec­ond res­i­dence in Ot­tawa. Wallin also racked up more flights than al­lowed un­der the Se­nate’s rules. But those three sen­a­tors have a point when they say that those rules have been murky and abused by oth­ers in the past, Boyer main­tains. That doesn’t ex­cuse their be­hav­iour. But it is a symp­tom, to Boyer, of fun­da­men­tal rot in the foun­da­tion, leading him to con­demn the whole creaky ed­i­fice. Boyer raises, then de­mol­ishes, all the ar­gu­ments in favour of the sta­tus quo: The Se­nate is a cham­ber of “sober sec­ond thought. The few times sen­a­tors have de­layed leg­is­la­tion, it has al­ways been for par­ti­san rea­sons. To block the GST, they blew ka­zoos and rat­tled noise­mak­ers — sober, in­deed. The Se­nate rep­re­sents re­gional or provin­cial in­ter­ests. It never did, Boyer says, and no one can le­git­i­mately rep­re­sent a prov­ince bet­ter than its pre­mier. Sen­a­tors can make an in­valu­able con­tri­bu­tion to pub­lic de­bate by car­ry­ing on cross-coun­try in­ves­ti­ga­tions of im­por­tant topics and mak­ing rec­om­men­da­tions to govern­ment. Boyer con­cedes there have been some worth­while re­ports over the years. But the whole busi­ness of re­search is bet­ter con­ducted by the Li­brary of Par­lia­ment, while pub­lic con­sul­ta­tions and pol­icy rec­om­men­da­tions are bet­ter left to royal com­mis­sions and pol­icy think tanks. Boyer then marches through all the rec­om­men­da­tions for Se­nate re­form, which date back to shortly af­ter its cre­ation. Prime min­is­ters from Robert Bor­den through Lester Pear­son and Brian Mul­roney have had big plans to change the Se­nate. So did Harper, along the lines of the “equal, elected, ef­fec­tive” Se­nate the Re­form Party used to ad­vo­cate. He has grad­u­ally jet­ti­soned most of his pro­pos­als in favour of mak­ing ap­point­ments the same old way, leading, in­evitably, to the ex­penses scan­dal. The book’s one short­com­ing is Boyer’s bare men­tion of the de­feat of the abor­tion bill dur­ing the Brian Mul­roney era, by sen­a­tors ap­pointed by Mul­roney. Given his de­tailed dis­cus­sion of ev­ery other is­sue, Boyer should have dis­sected that in­ci­dent more, par­tic­u­larly its ram­i­fi­ca­tions for sober sec­ond thought. Boyer con­cludes by call­ing for a na­tional ref­er­en­dum on abo­li­tion of the Se­nate, to be held at the same time as the next federal elec­tion. If it hap­pens, there’s no doubt which way he will vote. Don­ald Benham is di­rec­tor of hunger and poverty aware­ness at Win­nipeg Har­vest.

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