July 27, 2015


Canada

Expense issue symptom of what ails Senate

OTTAWA — Sometimes, one wonders what Queen Victoria might think.

Perched as she is over the Speaker’s chair in the Senate chamber, the monarch may well be glad in this case that she’s made of marble.

Trying to sort out the quagmire the Senate has become could stymie even the most stoic of monarchs.

On the surface, the Senate appears to be a dignified place. Its bright royal red carpet, wood panelling, the thrones at the front for the Queen, stone arches and coffered ceiling all give rise to the thought this chamber is where important things happen.

It is hard to find a time in recent memory when the Senate made any major changes to anything coming out of the House of Commons. The only time in recent memory a House bill was defeated was when the NDP managed to pass a climate-change bill in the minority Parliament and the upper chamber voted it down without a single minute of debate.

The Senate has truly become a soft landing spot for failed candidates, party fundraisers, political aides and even friends of whichever party or prime minister is in power. It is a practice used gratuitously by both Liberal and Conservative governments alike.

Now we have reason to question whether some senators live in the province or territory they represent, or claim tens of thousands of dollars in housing allowances each year for secondary residences that seem to exist only on paper.

Neighbours of Liberal Mac Harb and Conservative Mike Duffy barely, if ever, see them at their reported primary residences. Duffy still has an Ontario health card and still votes in Ontario elections.

Nunavut Sen. Dennis Patterson seems to live in B.C. The only property he owns in Nunavut has been rented out.

The allegations have led the NDP — which doesn’t have a single senator in the upper chamber — to develop a new catchphrase for the Senate: "Unelected, unaccountable and under investigation."

Given all of this, it’s no wonder the clamour for change from Canadians and politicians alike is hitting feverish pitches.

The trouble is, it might be easier to prove Santa Claus exists than to bring real change to the upper chamber. Any major changes to the Senate require a constitutional amendment, which means every province must agree.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper — who ran on a platform to reform the Senate, but has ended up being as bad as any of his predecessors for making patronage appointments to the upper chamber — hopes he can make changes such as introducing term limits and electing senators without a constitutional change. He recently asked the Supreme Court to decide if those can happen, and late last week Harper asked the court to fast-track that review.

Conservative Sen. Hugh Segal is asking for a referendum to determine if the Senate should be eliminated — an idea supported by at least one in three Canadians, according to recent polls.

The Senate does do some good work. Some of its studies are far more in-depth and less partisan than those undertaken by their colleagues on the other side of Centre Block. A recent study by the Senate finance committee helped shed some light on why retail prices in Canada are often so much higher than in the United States, even though the dollar is usually at or above par now.

In 2011, the Senate aboriginal peoples committee produced a detailed report about the state of education on First Nations communities, which should serve as the basis for creating standards for education on reserves across Canada.

But often whatever the Senate produces is tossed onto a dusty shelf by the government.

The latest questions about senators add fuel to the negative thoughts most Canadians have toward the Senate.

Thankfully, the government came to its senses quickly and decided the audits of Duffy, Harb, Patrick Brazeau, Pamela Wallin, and any others yet to come, will be made public.

But whatever the findings, the expense claims are really a minor symptom of all that ails the Senate.

Canadians spend more than $100 million each year to run the Senate, money that would be well-spent on a chamber that truly did give sober second thought to budgets and proposed new laws.

 mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

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