Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Political opportunity knocks to abolish Senate

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"For every thing there is a season" Ecclesiastes 3:1

 

The time has come. Most Canadians must now agree that the democratic anomaly of an unelected government-appointed Senate has finally served its non-purpose and should be abolished. Pamela Wallin and Mike Duffy may have done Canada an unintentional good service. Duffy has admitted abusing his expense privileges and the stories now being circulated concerning Wallin's use of Senate expense privileges are under investigation.

But regardless of the final outcome, the questions generated by the news stories and the focus that has been raised with regard to the Senate generally will not go away. It is being brought to the attention of the Canadian people that Senators receive a handsome salary of $135,000 per year plus generous expense allowances which may be subject to abuse. They serve without challenge until they are 75 years of age, at which time they are entitled to a healthy pension. They do not need to campaign for re-election and are entitled to office expense allowances. Senators serving additional functions such as party leaders and committee chairpersons receive additional remuneration.

People are now asking: "How does one get to be a senator in order to ride this gravy train?" How indeed? This was graphically brought to my attention about 20 tears ago when I was vacationing in Florida. My wife and I were staying at the same hotel as were Duff Roblin and his wife. While taking a casual walk, I met Duff, who at that time was a senator. The Senate was dealing with the Conservative government's major tax plan -- the GST.

The Liberals had a majority in the Senate and were mischievously trying to scuttle the plan. I commented to Duff that this was an abuse of Senate prerogatives, as it was never the parliamentary intention that the appointed Senate would interfere with a tax measure passed by the elected representatives of the people.

Duff warmed to the issue and said, "Sid, you have no idea. You should have been there!"

I responded with an air of feigned seriousness: "I don't recall having turned down any appointment." And given the benefits, it is unlikely that had such an offer been made, I would have refused

But given recent events, questions are now being raised. How did Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin rate being appointed to a parliamentary body? Both were journalists with no previous electoral experience. And if we go down the list, we find it impossible to establish meaningful criteria for many appointees.

While many appointees are former provincial or federal politicians who have either been defeated or otherwise retired, there are also citizens appointees such as the former president of the Conservative party, the wife of a former leader of the provincial Conservatives and other citizens who have been active as party staffers, such as Hugh Segal.

But is it worth the luxury of a parliamentary institution to have a place with which to reward the party faithful or other deserving citizens? I suggest that the government has sufficient patronage power with which to honour deserving citizens without maintaining an institution that has no legitimate democratic function.

But as a result of the Duffy-Wallin revelations, more and more Canadians are asking the big question, namely: "Why do we need a Senate at all?"

The short answer is: "We don't."

It should be emphasized that the Canadian Senate has no similarity to the U.S. Senate, which is elected. In the U.S., the Senate is a powerful body which gives equal representation to all states, from New York to Hawaii. It was established with the specific intention of being a brake on popular representation, which is reflected in the House of Representatives.

As a result, the U.S. is much less likely to achieve progressive legislation and is the reason people in the U.S. frequently regard Canada as a socialist country.

The Canadian Senate has a greater resemblance to the House of Lords, which is the upper chamber in Great Britain. The British have treated their aristocrats in a more civilized manner than the French, who lopped off their heads in the process and aftermath of the French revolution.

The British aristocracy has survived, but with very few of the prerogatives it used to enjoy. It is still entitled to the continuation of the partially hereditary House of Lords, which is even less likely to exercise its authority than the Canadian Senate. Like the British House of Lords, the Canadian Senate has some theoretical power, but given its sensitive position, it is not likely to exercise it.

So the time has come for some political party to ride the crest of popular opinion and make Senate abolition a major item in its program. The logical party to do so is the NDP, which has included Senate abolition in its program for many years. The Liberals are too wedded historically to do so and will probably call for some less-than-effective reforms. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has the edge on the NDP in this matter, in that he is in power and can act as well as propound. He can steal the NDP thunder if he acts definitely. Whether he will remains to be seen.

 

Sidney Green is a Winnipeg lawyer and former NDP cabinet minister.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 21, 2013 A13

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