The suspension of Patrick Brazeau from the Senate because of assault and sexual assault charges, his expulsion from the Conservative Party caucus, and questions about his and several other senators use of public funds for living and travel expenses are enough to make you wonder how we continue to spend upwards of $90 million a year on the appointed Senate.
Larry Zolf, the irreverent broadcaster and journalist, who grew up in Winnipeg's North End, once described the Senate as "the only museum in the world where all the artifacts, specimens, relics and fossils are alive-- if barely breathing."
He might have been thinking of Senator George Dessaules, who was appointed to the Senate by Wilfrid Laurier when he was 80 years old (today senators have to retire at 75) and served until he died in 1930 at the age of 102.
According to Allan Fotheringham, Dessaules only spoke in the Senate twice in that entire 23-year period: the first time to refute that his appointment was part of a "corrupt bargain" and the second to thank his fellow senators for giving him a portrait on his 100th birthday.
Indeed, since its creation in 1867, the federal upper house has been used for partisan purposes and is the No. 1 way to reward party hacks and generous financial supporters.
Brazeau is certainly not the first senator to get into serious trouble. Backroom deals, secret payoffs, and taxpayer abuse have been the sordid side of the Senate's long and illustrious history.
One of the worst scandals occurred in 1931 when three Liberal Party appointed senators, W. L. McDougald, Andrew Haydon and Donat Raymond, got caught up in the shady financial transactions involving the Beauharnois hydro-electric project on the St. Lawrence River. The Liberal cabinet led by Prime Minister Mackenzie King had approved the expensive partly government-funded proposal in 1929. A year later, its chief promoter, Robert Sweezy of the Beauharnois Light, Heat and Power Company, arranged for a generous $700,000 donation to the Liberal campaign for the 1930 federal election.
Some of that money was used by Raymond to win seats in Quebec, though investigations by the House of Commons and the Senate later cleared him of any wrongdoing. Haydon's Ottawa law firm (likely without his knowledge) had been promised a $50,000-lobby fee to win federal approval. "It is human nature to work harder at a price," Sweezy later explained about the contract. Haydon probably would have been forced to resign from the Senate, but he died a broken man in 1932.
McDougald, who fancied himself one of King's close friends (and, in fact, had contributed $25,000 to a secret retirement fund for the Liberal leader), made a fortune investing in Beauharnois through a shell company while at the same time he pushed the government to support the project.
In the end, he was made the scandal's chief scapegoat. Against his better judgment, he resigned from the Senate, which ultimately saved King from further embarrassment.
Nevertheless, King was in an unforgiving mood. He punished McDougald by cutting off all ties with him and returned most of his financial donation. Thereafter, McDougald became persona non grata within the Liberal Party.
In recent years, former senators Andrew Thompson, Eric Bernston and Michel Cogger have also crossed the line, though for much different reasons.
Thompson, the leader of the Ontario Liberal Party in the early 1960s, was appointed to the Senate in 1967. Twenty years later, it was revealed that, due to illness, he had been living in Mexico.
As such, between 1982 and 1997 he had only attended 47 of the more than 1,000 Senate sessions and a mere 14 since 1990. Yet each year, he was paid his $64,000 annual salary and a $10,100 tax-free allowance. When he failed to show up after being ordered to do so, he was drummed out of the Liberal caucus. Then, in a historic vote the Senate suspended him. He lost his salary and staff and finally resigned his seat in 1998 -- though his government pension remained intact.
Like Brazeau, Bernston and Cogger, two Tory appointed senators, got ensnared in legal troubles which cost them their Senate seats, though neither was easily removed from office. Bernston resigned in 2001 two years after he was convicted of fraud for making false claims as the deputy premier of Saskatchewan in the late '90s.
Cogger, a lawyer and a buddy of Brian Mulroney who had appointed him in 1986, was charged with influence peddling for allegedly using his position in the awarding of government contracts. He was convicted, but received an absolute discharge on appeal.
Suggestions that he resign his seat were made as early as 1989, but he only did so in the fall of 2000 when it became impossible for him to attend sessions. Predictably, Mulroney thought Cogger had been railroaded by the RCMP and the media.
None of these scandals are meant to imply that the Senate has no redeeming qualities. Over the decades, many senators, such as Manitoba's own Duff Roblin, Gil Molgat, Douglas Everett, Sharon Carstairs and Mira Spivak, among others, have worked hard and made positive contributions in researching complex bills, serving on committees, and offering a much-need "sober second thought."
They and their colleagues are certainly not to blame that the Senate as an institution has become anachronistic. As Pamela Wallin, one of the senators whose travel expenses and primary residence claims have been questioned, recently argued in the Globe and Mail, "the Senate is what it is because that's way Canada's founders established it."
That's exactly the problem. The Senate was conceived as the guardian of the country's regions as well as propertied interests. "We must protect the rights of minorities, and the rich are always fewer than the poor," John A. Macdonald said during the Confederation debates. The Fathers of Confederation saw nothing undemocratic about an appointed upper house. In the 19th century, it was merely an acceptable part of the natural order of society and government.
Nearly 150 years later, these recent legal problems and unsettling issues about the use and potential abuse of public funds are yet another reminder that the Senate is in desperate need of reform to make it more accountable.
Electing it, like the Senate in Australia, is one option, though that could lead to power struggles between two elected bodies and further headaches. Or, just abolish it altogether and use the $90 million for something else.