Can scandal-plagued chamber be saved?
Reprobates’ antics may prompt serious and long-overdue debate
Well, you have to say this for Pamela Wallin, Mike Duffy, and Patrick Brazeau.
They have united Canadians coast-to-coast — in growing national frustration with Canada’s Senate.
It has been a summer of revelations and scandals with each new example of a senator allegedly bending the rules to serve his or her own personal interests. Small wonder many Canadians are wondering why we bother at all with an unelected upper house, full of entitled toffs who can’t be turfed even if they break the law, even if they’re not medically competent to hold office.
Our upper chamber — modelled on Britain’s House of Lords — was designed to play a critical role in Canadian democracy. It was supposed to function as a bulwark against dictatorship and a way of stopping big provinces from riding roughshod over the interests of small ones.
But buried beneath that hoary old “sober second thought” cliché lies a battered, but noble, ideal.
It’s the role of the Senate to stand above the daily political fray to help prevent the government, whatever its political stripe, from being swept up in ideological enthusiasms.
In 1867, our Victorian founders imagined the Senate as a defence against mob rule. In 2013, it’s more useful to see our bicameral legislature as a tool to prevent the rise of demagogues, not to mention a chance to subject new legislation to thoughtful scrutiny, at a slight remove from the partisan cut and thrust of the House of Commons.
These days, the Senate is failing on almost every front. Instead of being appointed on merit, all too often senators get the gig because they’re political cronies or party loyalists, bagmen (and women) who have primarily distinguished themselves as rabid partisans or backroom boys, not deep thinkers.
In some cases, they’ve gone right on hustling on the hustings as fundraisers and party campaigners, completely blurring their duty as public servants with their role as party operatives, audaciously billing the taxpayer for the time they spend on campaign work.
Yes, there are earnest, hardworking, intelligent, thoughtful senators serving on committees, scrutinizing legislation, meeting with schoolkids, speaking to service clubs. But they’ve been so overshadowed in the public mind by the antics of the reprobates that it’s hard for any senator to maintain public credibility.
On top of that, the Senate has become a way to entrench historic unfairness. Alberta, with a current population of 3.9 million, has six senators. Quebec, with a population of eight million, twice that of Alberta, has four times as many senators — 24, in total.
New Brunswick, with a population of 750,000, has 10 senators. Even more egregiously, Prince Edward Island, with 146,000 people, has four senators.
In Alberta, each senator represents 650,000 people. In Quebec, there are 333,333 people per senator. In New Brunswick, that’s 75,000 citizens per senator, while in Prince Edward Island, each senator serves 36,500 people. Instead of acting as a way to protect regional interests the moribund Senate reflects a model of Confederation, a national reality that simply no longer exists.
So why not just shut down the red chamber, give those senators their pink slips, and save ourselves a lot of time and money?
It’s the obvious, appealing solution — especially when the protocols for amending our constitution make Senate reform so daunting.
But despite our legitimate frustrations, the bicameral parliamentary system is more than an antiquated vestige of British history. If those seats were properly filled, if those senators had credibility, and the trust of the people, they could do the jobs they’re supposed to do.
Electing senators, the solution Alberta has long championed, truly isn’t the answer — that would be a wasteful duplication of the House of Commons, a doubling down on our political woes.
But suppose we made Senate appointments less partisan, not more? Suppose we made appointment to the Senate a true honour for respected citizens, instead of treating the Senate as a playhouse for political cronies and apparatchiks? What if we appointed all senators as independents, who didn’t feel the need to toe a party line?
In the aftermath of Meech Lake, there hasn’t been an appetite for a real constitutional debate in this country, not for a generation. But with the reputation and credibility of our Senate in free fall, perhaps we’ll finally find the national will, and the nerve, for such a conversation. Who knows? Perhaps Pamela Wallin, Mike Duffy, and Patrick Brazeau will go down in history as the Canadians who saved the Senate — from itself.