Edmonton Journal

Can scandal-plagued chamber be saved?

Reprobates’ antics may prompt serious and long-overdue debate

- 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 psimons@edmontonjo­urnal. 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.
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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