Red chamber rot
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.