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Fix Senate? Sure -- question is, how?

Various methods at Harper's disposal

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Manitoba Sen. Maria Chaput says her inbox is full of vitriol from voters.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Manitoba Sen. Maria Chaput says her inbox is full of vitriol from voters. Photo Store

OTTAWA -- Canada's Senate is a pretty easy target these days.

Let's face it, the upper chamber is a pretty easy target most days.

But in the last few weeks, the level of vitriol aimed at the so-called chamber of sober second thought has reached new heights.

Liberal Sen. Maria Chaput said her inbox has been flooded.

"They are saying nasty things," said Chaput. "I'm not mad. I'm very sad."

As the upper chamber steers itself through another rapid-infested river, with questions swirling around improper living or travel expense claims by four senators, Chaput said the tension is thick and the emotions high.

"I'm not sure the Senate will be able to get out of this," she said. Support for Canada's Senate is not high. Four in 10 Canadians want major reforms, including the introduction of elections for senators.

One-third of Canadians simply want it abolished, and that number has grown in recent years.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, long a proponent of Senate reform, seems to agree, saying late last week it was time to abolish it.

The official Opposition NDP has wanted it abolished for years.

The Senate has done some great work in its time, often delving more deeply into topics than time and politics will allow their colleagues in the House of Commons.

Recently, that has included an in-depth look at the discrepancy between U.S. and Canadian retail prices. The study led to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's decision to cut tariffs on certain items as a test to see if that would bring Canadian prices closer to those of products on American store shelves.

A 2012 Senate study on native education is helping direct a government initiative to overhaul the reserve school system.

Other studies on an aging population and cyberbullying are trumpeted as a good start for ways to tackle those issues.

But the upper chamber, which is supposed to be a place where politics is not the driving force behind debates and votes on legislation, has become little more than a dumping ground for partisan hacks during the last couple of governments.

Appointments to the Senate are made by whomever is the prime minister and more often than not are reserved for failed candidates, former political staffers, former MPs, party fundraisers and organizers, and the list goes on.

It has become almost as political a chamber as the House of Commons.

Chaput said the changes in the Senate have her questioning how much longer she wants to stay there. Liberal Sen. Sharon Carstairs retired several years before she would have been required to in large part because she no longer felt the Senate was working as it was supposed to.

But how does this change?

The government has asked the Supreme Court for a ruling on how many changes it can make to the Senate without opening up the Constitution. It wants to introduce elections and term limits, both things that would go a long way to making senators more accountable.

But it's not certain when the Supreme Court will rule, and if a constitutional amendment is required, Prime Minister Stephen Harper would need support from the vast majority of provincial governments. It's a high bar, and not one any prime minister would try to jump over it lightly.

Abolishing the Senate surely would require such a step, so it is likely not really on the table as an option.

But Harper could take steps to stop the tirade simply by reforming how he chooses his appointees.

Instead of combing lists of people who will be faithful and help raise money for the party's campaigns, he should seek lists of people who will bring a variety of experiences to the upper chamber. People who don't necessarily have strong partisan ties and people who will be allowed to think and vote freely.

There are three vacancies in the Senate, including one in Manitoba.

Harper could show he is committed to making the Senate a better place by filling them with non-partisan Canadians who could fill gaps of knowledge and experience that may exist among the existing senators.

Simply continuing to appoint senators as he and other prime ministers before him have done will do nothing.

If we always do what we have always done, we'll always get what we always got.

And what we've gotten recently with the Senate is not good enough.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 27, 2013 A4

History

Updated on Monday, May 27, 2013 at 7:17 AM CDT: adds photo, adds video

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