Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Senate reforms possible

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The Supreme Court of Canada has ended Prime Minister Stephen Harper's hope for an easy fix to the beleaguered Senate. And since there is no stomach for a constitutional convention that would inevitably dredge up new demands and issues, the country may be tempted to just turn the page and forget it about for another 150 years.

Even Mr. Harper says Canadians are "stuck with the status quo," but that's just not good enough.

The Senate scandal over expenses and long-standing complaints about the value of the institution mean the reform question will not go away quietly. It is worth considering how the Red Chamber could be improved without making another trip to court or organizing a national gabfest.

One place to start is at the beginning.

The Supreme Court said in its judgment the Fathers of Confederation created the upper chamber with the intent it be made up of "elites" appointed by the Crown. Their job was to hold the government to account and serve as a body of "sober second thought."

Many distinguished Canadians, including former prime minister Arthur Meighen, have served in the Senate over the years. Two governments have actually been led by senators, who also frequently served as cabinet ministers.

The idea of a chamber of distinguished men and (later) women who were actively involved in running the country, however, degraded over the decades. Today, few Canadians can name any of their Senate representatives, who too frequently are appointed because of their work behind the scenes for the ruling party.

Many senators in recent years have fulfilled their duties with distinction -- Sharon Carstairs and Roméo Dallaire are two such examples -- but there's not enough of them.

Prime Minister Harper and his successors can reverse this trend by appointing people who stand out in their communities. They don't have to be celebrities or household names, but they should be energetic and honourable people who want to make a difference and, ideally, step down after they made their contribution.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's decision to distance the party from the Senate by declaring "there are no more Liberal senators" was widely mocked, but at least it was an idea that could limit partisanship and open the door to the appointment of men and women of honour.

Mr. Harper, for example, tainted the appointment process when he named Mike Duffy to the Senate as a representative from Prince Edward Island, even though he had lived in Ontario most of his adult life. (It's telling there were no complaints from the island province; such is the low regard of the Senate as a body of influence.)

Senators are supposed to represent provincial and regional interests, but Mr. Duffy's sole role seemed to be as a political operative and strategist for the Conservatives.

The Supreme Court said a process of consultative elections for the purpose of nominating Senators would give them a popular mandate that was never intended when the Constitution was framed.

How, then, are they to be held accountable? Well, the Senate itself must demand the highest standards of transparency and accountability, including rolling audits of spending.

Parliament, too, needs to figure out how it could use the talents of the Senate to greater effect. That, of course, requires reform to parliamentary institutions, notably the weak committee structures, but also to the prime ministers's office, where power is overwhelmingly concentrated.

The Senate once had an important place in Canadian history, but it has become a national embarrassment. If it can't be abolished or fundamentally altered, then Parliament -- the House and the Senate -- must at least make a commitment to restoring its integrity through internal reforms and a more honourable appointment process.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 26, 2014 A16

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