Another View

A fresh look at an aged institution

Charles Gordon April 13 1998
Another View

A fresh look at an aged institution

Charles Gordon April 13 1998

A fresh look at an aged institution

Another View

Charles Gordon

You wonder if anything will ever be done about the Senate. There is too little useful public outrage over the Senate, and the institution is too useful to the party in power. For an example of the Senate’s usefulness, look at the recent appointment of Ross Fitzpatrick, a B.C. businessman and Liberal fund-raiser. The Senate exists for this purpose, as a reward and an incentive for people to support political parties. For lack of outrage, look at the reaction to the appointment. The Reform party rightly made a fuss in the House of Commons, but it didn’t catch on.

Which is a bit depressing. In 1987, when Jean Chrétien was, briefly, a private citizen, Fitzpatrick sold the future Liberal leader some stock that he was able to sell a week later for a profit of $45,000. In some other lines of work, that fact would have caused the prime minister to avoid making the appointment, for the sake of appearances, if nothing else. Not in this case. Not in the case of the Senate of Canada. Never, in the case of the Senate of Canada.

We seem resigned to the Senate as an instrument of patronage. Yet we want senators to go regularly to the office.

To be sure, not everybody in the Senate of Canada is a retired Liberal or Tory MP, a resigned Liberal or Tory provincial party leader, a defeated Liberal or Tory candidate, a spouse, a sibling, a family pet or a chiropractor of one of the above. But to understate it a bit, not every senator stands completely above the political fray either. Canadians have lived with this for a long time and are a bit numbed by it all. It is probably unrealistic to expect them to rise up in anger at this late date.

There was recent public outrage over the Senate, but it was about something else, the attendance record of a less recent Liberal appointment, Andrew Thompson. Thompson, now living in Mexico, had attended five per cent of Senate sittings since the 1980s. For that, he was getting $75,000 in salary and allowances. The public could identify with that, the idea of someone making big bucks and not showing up for work. The ensuing fuss precipitated his suspension from the Senate and eventual resignation.

Which is fine, except for the confusion it demonstrates about the minds of Canadians. On the one hand, we seem resigned to the Senate as an instrument of patronage and cronyism. On the other hand, we are insistent that senators go regularly to the office. You would have thought, what with one thing and another, that we’d be happier if more senators followed Thompson’s example and simply stayed away.

There will be a brief pause here while fair-minded Canadians raise the objection that many senators are capable, intelligent people with a proud record of service to their country. This is true, and some of them are even Liberals. Further, in recent years both Liberal and Conservative administrations have appointed people to the Senate who don’t fit the party loyalist mould. But however talented and ded-

icated they may be and however talented and dedicated many of the party loyalists are, too, they are in the Senate, an institution that has virtually no power, and rightly so. There must be better ways we can find to allow them to serve their country.

It is this thought that drives the proposal made by some westerners, and adopted by the Reform party, that the Senate be elected. Obviously, a less partisan group would emerge from an elected Senate—or at least a group whose partisanship is more varied, or at least a group whose partisanship has the endorsement of the electorate.

The emotional satisfaction for the voters of being able to end-run the Prime Minister’s Office and put their own senators into power is clear. But so are the weaknesses of the idea. In the first place, the elected Senate, if it is of the sort proposed at Charlottetown, will be unrepresentative in a different way. Like the American Senate, it will give small jurisdictions the same representation as larger ones, Prince Edward Island the same number of senators as Ontario, New Brunswick the same number as British Columbia. What possible use can this be?

Secondly, the Senate, having been elected, will want to do something. Is that a good idea? When the Senate decides to become active, if memory serves, that’s when the kazoos come out. Since we already have a House of Commons, elected roughly on a representationby-population basis, why would we want to invest power in a less representative, less democratic body?

If in fact the Senate does the occasional useful thing, it does not necessarily follow that it should be reformed by giving it more power to do useful things. A more compelling case could be made for reforming the House of Commons, giving backbench MPs more responsibility, strengthening the committee system, loosening party discipline to allow more free votes, and generally making the House more democratic and individual MPs more effective. With a better functioning House of Commons, no one would miss the Senate.

The current Senate’s only saving grave is that it doesn’t do much. It runs the odd committee, takes a sober second look at this and that, and soaks up a bit of public money, a relatively small amount, as public spending is counted. In its present form, it doesn’t do much harm, aside from offending the democratic eye. Give it some power and that might change.

The rationale for leaving the Senate alone is what used to be taught in political science class: the Senate helps the party system function by providing an incentive for people to get involved in political work. If we are willing to concede the truth of this, then we are forced to accept the Senate in its unreformed state.

The only real alternative is abolition. It gets more attractive every day.