Can scan­dal-plagued cham­ber be saved?

Repro­bates’ an­tics may prompt se­ri­ous and long-over­due de­bate

Edmonton Journal - - CITY & REGION - PAULA SI­MONS ed­mon­ton­jour­nal. com Paula Si­mons is on Face­book. To join the con­ver­sa­tion, go to www. face­book.com/ EJPaulaSi­mons or visit her blog at ed­mon­ton­jour­nal. com/Pau­lat­ics psi­[email protected]­mon­ton­jour­nal. com Twit­ter.com/Pau­lat­ics

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.

FRED CHARTRAND/ THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Sen. Mike Duffy makes his way in May to the Se­nate, which may ap­pear, to some Cana­di­ans, to be full of en­ti­tled toffs.

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