Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Senate jigsaw puzzle

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The abuse of expense accounts and other misdeeds in the Senate have renewed calls for its abolition, but if bad behaviour by politicians justified the elimination of political institutions, there wouldn't be a single one in the country, at any level.

That doesn't mean the Senate can't or shouldn't be abolished, but it will require a good deal more thinking than has been evident so far from the NDP, the prime advocate for eliminating the upper body.

If the Red Chamber was demolished, it would leave the House of Commons as the sole centre of political power in Canada, combining the functions of legislator, executive, opposition and government.

Some critics argue that of the two bodies, it's the House that is in greater need of reform. Among other things, it doesn't do a particularly good job as an oversight body, particularly when every government MP is expected to defend the ruling party, while every opposition member attacks, as opposed to representing the public interest.

The recent federal budget, for example, did not contain much in the way of detailed spending estimates, making it difficult to determine how much was being spent or cut by department, but the opposition was powerless to compel the release of more information.

The Senate, of course, doesn't have that power either, but it can and does delay the passage of bills, providing more time for public scrutiny. It also produces useful reports on critical public issues, which help inform and guide political debate. Senators can also use their (admittedly small) bully pulpits to put governments under the spotlight.

In any event, the Senate is not popular with Canadians or politicians, a sentiment that has grown with recent outrages.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Tuesday he expects the Senate to make immediate changes to prevent the abuse of expense accounts.

In addition to clarifying the rules, the Senate should also post on the Internet the detailed expenses of senators. Public exposure is often the best way of compelling appropriate behaviour by politicians.

There is no urgent need, however, to make fundamental structural reforms in the short term, and possibly not ever, since any attempt at change is likely to be a complicated affair that would reignite regional issues and old grievances in Quebec and possibly stir new controversies about aboriginal representation.

The Harper government has asked the Supreme Court of Canada to rule on several questions that could affect the Senate, including the amending procedures that would be needed to establish term limits for senators and the democratic selection of Senate nominees.

The court is also being asked to rule on how the Senate might be abolished, which is not on the government's agenda, but it makes sense to ask the justices to deal with the question while they are considering the other issues.

The answers may provide an opportunity for small, incremental changes that could make the Senate a more credible institution.

Between now and then, however, the Red Chamber must deal with its internal problems and improve its accountability if it wants to be taken seriously and prolong its life as a Canadian institution.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 22, 2013 A10

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