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Pay cuts will reform Senate

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CALGARY -- The Canadian Senate is a lot like the weather. As Charles Dudley Warner once quipped, "Everyone complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it."

Everyone, it seems, also complains about the Senate -- its members' overstuffed expense accounts, long vacations in Mexico (remember Andy Thompson's adventures in the late 1990s), lack of voter accountability and its lack of regional representation. Yet, no one has been able to bring about meaningful change.

Sure, the Reform party, and later the Canadian Alliance, campaigned for a Triple-E Senate: equal, elected and effective. But by the time the Alliance merged with the former Progressive Conservatives, the push for ambitious Senate reform seemed to have lost its lustre.

Unfortunately, even party favourites have been known to embarrass their benefactors: Thompson and more recently Mac Harb have tarnished the Liberal brand; the Conservatives have equally been humiliated by the actions of Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau.

Senate reform is not absent for want of trying. Efforts to accomplish it have frustrated the likes of such heavyweights as former B.C. premier Bill Bennett, former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed, Reform party founder Preston Manning and former prime minister Brian Mulroney. Some provinces don't even want to talk about reforming the Senate anymore. Let's get rid of it, they've said. (There are actually valid constitutional reasons for not being so hasty; a chamber of sober second thought, in principle, can have some significant democratic value.)

But any move -- whether reform or abolition -- is powerfully difficult to achieve. Overhauling the Senate requires constitutional reform, which means the government has to persuade seven provinces containing at least 50 per cent of the population that its plan is in the best interests of everyone. But, changing the way senators are appointed would likely only require passing a bill.

Harper's Tories are soldiering on. In February, the government made a reference to the Supreme Court of Canada, asking the court's opinion on six questions on what is required constitutionally to reform the Senate and what would be required to abolish it. The questions cover the topics of term limits, selection of Senate nominees, the repeal of current property qualifications and abolition of the Senate. The court has suggested we shouldn't expect an answer in less than 24 months.

All this squabbling has made me wonder what is the attraction to the Red Chamber anyway? Endless hours in drab committee rooms, poring over thick documents. It all seems rather dreary.

Until you consider the perks. The base salary is $135,300. Chairing a committee will bring in an extra $11,200, and other jobs -- right up to Speaker of the Senate -- can drive up the income by as much as an additional $56,000. Oh, and the Speaker also gets a car allowance.

And then there are those notorious expense accounts, ranging in the case of Harb, Wallin and Duffy into six figures.

So, it occurred to me a simple solution might just be staring us in the face. You want to get rid of some of those overpaid, sense-of-entitlement, old boys and gals? Why not start with a substantial pay cut? When a typical senator is paid roughly three times the average salary of Canadians overall, it's hard to believe there would be much public outcry over reducing the cost of maintaining the Red Chamber.

And it might be an interesting way to weed out those who are truly motivated by a desire to deliver public service from those who are more interested in an easy slide into a very comfortable retirement. Think of the hundreds of thousands of volunteers who serve on the boards of not-for-profit organizations across the country -- perhaps a few of them would be willing to spend some time in Ottawa pondering the affairs of the country.

There might even be fewer lawyers and a lot more of the rest of us.

Yeah, I know. Some of you (at least the lawyers) might be outraged and think the idea will never fly. A millwright or a farmer debating the minutiae of legislation? Unthinkable!

But then you have to wonder if a little more common sense might not be such a bad thing.

Senate reform? Start by taking away the economic entitlement.

Doug Firby is editor-in-chief and national affairs columnist for Troy Media.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 31, 2013 A17

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