Sober second thought, rethought

Our panelists discuss the future for Canada’s upper house in light of recent scandals

Our panelists debate who should be allowed to occupy these seats in the Senate.
Our panelists debate who should be allowed to occupy these seats in the Senate.

Accountability Needed

The Canadian Senate desperately needs to be introduced to the concept of representative democracy.

However, the recent Duffy/Wright scandal is not bringing out the best arguments from those, like myself, who demand a shiny new Senate. Creating an elected Senate or simply giving up and abolishing the entire institution will not solve the Duffy problem, or the Mac Harb problem, and would do little to end the more minor blights of Patrick Brazeau and Pamela Wallin.

While more drastic overhauls of the Senate have been proposed over the last several months, these solutions would do little to solve the faults revealed in recent scandals, which demonstrate that senators, and to a lesser extent MPs, shy away from accountability in their handling of public funds. Any broader constitutional changes to the Senate would be hollow victories as neither abolition nor elections would end the abuses of taxpayer funds by Parliamentarians.

A more democratic institution would not stop the likes of Duffy, Brazeau, Harb or Wallin from entering it, if they chose to run. In fact, many senators, including Harb and Brazeau, have previously held elected positions.

Much worse, an elected Senate would do little to keep senators accountable on a day-to-day basis if current rules and procedures were allowed to remain. Many of the more troubling aspects of the Senate expense scandal, such as party-controlled committees and the abuse of taxpayer-funded accounts, can all be found in the House of Commons as well.

Members of Parliament are given significant leeway to spend public money on their offices and travel. The body required to ensure these funds are not misused is the Board of Internal Economy, the twin to the Senate’s internal economy committee (currently under fire for its secretive and ineffective practices).

MPs brought forward for abuses get the benefit of a closed session, robbing their constituents of the opportunity to learn the extent of their misspending. Unless the system is changed, there’s nothing to suggest that this would not happen in an elected Senate.

Abolition may solve the problem of senators misbehaving, but it does little to rectify the cracks in parliamentary accountability that the bumblings of the Senate have revealed. It would do nothing to make the equally secretive House Board of Internal Economies open its doors.

Even the stalwart defenders of abolition, the NDP, have recently begrudgingly admitted their preference for constructing rules for MP’s expenses inside the anything-but-transparent Board rather than on the House floor, while decrying similar practices in the Senate.

Surely the fact that abuses are occurring is of greater significance than whether those abusers were elected or not.

Despite adding no new measures of accountability, abolition would ironically lessen it by removing a vital tool for the review of legislation and a potential check on the already bloated PMO’s power to force legislative agendas through the lower house.

The winds of change should sweep through the Senate. It should one day be elected to increase the scope of Canadian democracy. But election or abolition is not the silver bullet it appears to be on first inspection. Canadians should fix the immediate problems of accountability before rushing towards the more exciting possibilities of constitutional reform.

Forrest Donaldson is a third-year history and political studies student.

Charting A New Course

If the ongoing expense scandals involving senators Mike Duffy, Patrick Brazeau, Mac Harb and Pamela Wallin have taught us anything, it’s that the Canadian Senate is in dire need of reform.

The notion that at least four senators thought it was acceptable to use public funds for inappropriate housing and travel expense claims is proof that the current format is not working.

While members of Parliament tend to lose their jobs over similar abuses of taxpayers’ money (such as former Conservative MP Bev Oda’s $16 glass of orange juice), senators like Mike Duffy can get away with over $90,000 in claims for bogus housing expenses and remain a senator provided the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff fronts them the cash.

Most people would call that unacceptable behaviour, but how should we, the Canadian people, express our displeasure if the Senate remains an appointed body? Some have argued that the Senate has outlived its usefulness and should be abolished (the NDP, for instance) but such action serves only to diminish the quality of democracy in this country rather than bolster it.

The purpose of the Senate is to act as the house of sober second thought, a check on the lower chamber and the legislation it passes.

All scandals aside, the Senate is still that body, but it must be reformed in order for it to do its job effectively.

First, senators must be held accountable to the Canadian people in elections just as they are in the American system, but their terms ought to be eight years, not six. Furthermore, senators shouldn’t be elected during general elections so that the risk of the Senate resembling a mirror image of the House of Commons is reduced.

Their eight year terms exist to serve this purpose because the election dates for senators will never overlap with those of MPs under normal circumstances.

What good is requiring two houses to pass legislation if one is merely a carbon copy of the other, acting as nothing more than a glorified rubber stamp to bill after bill? The role of the Senate is to provide a counterweight against the House of Commons — to review proposed bills and amend them accordingly.

On top of separate election dates, this issue can be mitigated further by removing parties from the Senate and forcing all senators to run as independents. The existence of parties in the House of Commons makes sense because it allows members to coalesce around particular values, but the Senate need not be so partisan.

Senators should not be a part of this faction or that faction, nor should they be the mouthpieces for specific parties. Instead, their primary interest must be to serve Canadians by curtailing the power of the House of Commons, regardless of their political leanings.

David Carpenter is a third-year history and political studies medial.

Weather the Storm

Being a senator in Canada is a relatively easy and safe job: you’re not elected, you have a big paycheck and it’s difficult to get fired. The question, then, is: how have so many people managed to mess it up?

Ottawa is on the verge of a political revolution. Politicians and citizens are in an uproar about the greed and injustice that surrounds the Canadian Senate, constantly bickering back and forth about whether to completely abolish it or reform it. Although both sides make valid arguments, neither come to the right solution, which would be a compromise between a reformed Senate and a traditional one.

In light of recent scandals, from Nigel Wright’s $90,172 payout to Mike Duffy, to other unreasonable expenses by Senators Pamela Wallin, Mac Harb and Patrick Brazeau, many have concluded that the Senate is corrupt and needs to be abolished. Others are advocating for reform into a Triple-E Senate — which stands for “elected, equal and effective.” While both of these ideas are revolutionary, they won’t actually solve any problems.

The Triple-E Senate argument is based on the idea that if senators are elected, they will be more conscientious. Furthermore, this concept advocates equal seats divided among provinces. Although a Triple-E Senate would increase democratic accountability, many voters and politicians still advocate for the abolition of the Senate. Although support for abolition has recently been increasing, but it’s too drastic to be a realistic change.

Abolition of the Senate would be too extreme because it would require our entire political structure to change. Canada’s government would no longer have a balance between an elected parliament and an appointed Senate, which allows the government to have second thoughts about its decisions after the initial pass through the House of Commons.

The Senate is a necessary institution, because it ensures the stability of our government, and without it members of Parliament would do whatever was necessary to satisfy voters, ultimately creating chaos.

The Triple-E Senate isn’t a viable option of reform because having a non-elected Senate is important. Senators aren’t afraid of making unpopular decisions that may benefit the country but would dissatisfy voters. Furthermore, the equality segment of this plan — ensuring the same number of seats to every region — isn’t plausible. It makes sense that regions with larger populations have more seats.

Although a complete change would be too drastic, some changes can be made to ensure that we aren’t plagued by more scandals. The Supreme Court can impose more rules and regulations on the Senate to lessen the chances of abuse of power.

Senators can also be evaluated periodically so that they’re not in their positions indefinitely.

Small changes allow people time to adapt to new regulations without going into shock. Abolition of the Senate could very well lead to uncertainty and recklessness within our government, whereas a huge reform would lead to confusion and animosity.

The Senate now has to be realigned as a balancing act of power, trust, justice and responsibility — finding a compromise between full reformation and its original nature.

Samantha Friedland is a second-year philosophy major.

Senate by the Numbers

There are 105 seats in the Canadian Senate. 102 seats are currently filled.

There are:

- 60 Conservatives

- 35 Liberals

- 7 Independents

Senators serve until age 75.

Total amount of the cheque given to Senator Mike Duffy by Nigel Wright to repay expenses: $90,172.

Amount Senator Mac Harb has been asked to repay: $231,649.

Ontario and Quebec have 24 seats each, while the territories have one apiece. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have 10 seats, while Newfoundland, Saskatchewan, BC, Manitoba and Alberta have six. PEI has the fewest of any province at four.

Four senators have recently been audited for travel and living expense claims.

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