The time for tinkering with the Senate is past, writes Tasha Kheiriddin in the National Post. Canada’s upper chamber needs wholesale pruning.
Kheiriddin will argue in favour of the motion “Canada’s Senate is beyond saving and must be abolished” as part of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s first Great Canadian Debate of 2015-16. Stanley Hartt, who also authored a National Post op-ed, will argue against.
For tickets, click here.
By Tasha Kheiriddin, National Post, Nov. 19, 2015
As the trial of disgraced Senator Mike Duffy resumes Thursday, Canadians will ask themselves once again: what should we do about the Senate? In a poll conducted last March, 41 per cent of Canadians wanted to abolish it, 45 per cent favoured reforming it and only 14 per cent thought it was fine the way it was. The case for change is clear. The question is, what shape should that change take? While reform might seem the less dramatic route (and what would we do with the lovely East Block?), I side with the abolitionists. The time for tinkering is past — some wholesale pruning is in order.
When Canada’s democracy was conceived, it made sense to copy Britain’s bicameral system, which included an elected House of Commons and a hereditary House of Lords. This was the long-held Westminster tradition (the literal meaning of Senate is “assembly of elders,” which dates back to Roman times). But the concept what a Senate should be has not remained static. Modern senates have replaced hereditary houses with appointed or elected bodies. There are many variations: some, like the one in Australia, feature term limits; some, like Germany’s, are appointed by sub-national governments. And many other countries have done away with them altogether.
The time for tinkering is past — some wholesale pruning is in order.
I will concede that Canada’s upper chamber serves some noble purposes. It was created to ensure regional representation, provide “sober second thought” on bills and produce research on everything from women’s rights to finance. While our Senate usually rubber stamps whatever legislative proposals come to it from the House of Commons, it has tried to thwart the lower house on certain issues, including abortion and labour rights. It has featured among its ranks Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire, Olympic skiing champion Nancy Greene Raine and conservative intellectual Hugh Segal.
But the Senate also serves as a sinecure for party bagmen, defeated candidates and anyone else the government of the day deems worthy of occupying its crimson chairs. Perhaps not surprisingly, the scandal rate per capita is sky high. In 2015, Auditor General Michael Ferguson found that 30 senators — that’s one in three — expensed questionable items, ranging from fishing trips to funerals. Nine cases were referred to police for investigation. In the past four years, former or current senators Mac Harb, Mike Duffy, Patrick Brazeau, Pamela Wallin, Don Meredith and Colin Kenny have all been accused of impropriety ranging from financial to sexual. In 2011, Raymond Lavigne was expelled from the Senate after being convicted of fraud, for which he served six months in jail.
Then there is the question of whether Canadians are getting value for their money. The upper chamber costs taxpayers $90 million a year. The average senator worked 72 days last year for an annual salary of $142,400. Additional responsibilities provide top-ups ranging from $5,800 for chairing committees, to $58,500 for serving as speaker. There are expense accounts for travel, lodging, meals and the like. And they better be first-class: God forbid senators should survive on “crackers and cold camembert.” as Senator Nancy Ruth lamented.
Which bring us to the entitlement mentality. According to Ferguson, “What struck me … was the depth to which a number of senators simply felt that they didn’t have to account for, or they didn’t have to be transparent with, their spending.” The Senate’s institutional “cachet” seems to impart to its members an inflated sense of self. Indeed, the original concept of a bicameral legislature in Medieval Europe included one body for “commoners” and another for “aristocracy.” Who wouldn’t feel superior in that sort of position?
Can all this be cured simply by changing the rules on disclosure, eligibility, spending or scrutiny?
The government doesn’t seem to feel a need to be accountable about its appointments process, either. It considers residency rules to be so opaque as to justify Duffy representing P.E.I. when he has spent most of his life in Ottawa, or Pamela Wallin representing Saskatchewan when she has called Toronto home for decades. The Senate ends up serving as a partisan fundraising vehicle — on the taxpayer’s dime.
Can all this be cured simply by changing the rules on disclosure, eligibility, spending or scrutiny? After all, Canada didn’t jettison the House of Commons after the Sponsorship Scandal, which cost Canadians a lot more than the $1 million in improper expenses that Ferguson flagged. Instead, then-prime minister Stephen Harper brought in the Accountability Act to shut the revolving door between lobbying and political staffing and oblige MPs to account for their spending habits. Perhaps all that is needed to “fix” the Senate is greater oversight, or the reforms proposed by the Tories in their reference to the Supreme Court, such as term limits and elections instead of appointments.
Sorry, but I don’t think so.
A unicameral legislative system would provide as good, or better, government to Canada. Here at home, the provincial legislatures that once included upper houses have all done away with them, without a noticeable impact in the quality of legislation. In the rest of the world, countries such as New Zealand, Denmark, Sweden, South Korea, Hungary — indeed, the majority of countries — have unicameral legislatures.
It is also not true that a bicameral legislature is necessary to give a voice to Canada’s regions. They are fairly represented in the House of Commons, with their numbers evolving alongside population growth. The cabinet always accounts for regional representation. Furthermore, with the government contemplating changes to our first-past-the-post electoral system, it is possible that changes will be made that could further support regional voices, such as in a mixed-member proportional system. Parties could select additional members from regions where they did not elect members directly, based on their share of the popular vote.
And since the Supreme Court has made clear that any change to the Senate — whether reform or abolition — faces similar constitutional hurdles, why go half way? Instituting term limits or elections would not give Canadians better government, just more government. Do Canadians really want another general election for the Senate?
The time has come to move Canadian government into the 21st century. Abolishing the Senate would revive Canadians’ faith in democracy and political ethics. It is time that our legislators all served at the pleasure of the people, not their own.