ANOTHER VIEW

How to clean up the Senate mess

What should be done is a simple turning back of the clock, requiring the Senate to relive the ingloriousness of its past

CHARLES GORDON October 29 1990
ANOTHER VIEW

How to clean up the Senate mess

What should be done is a simple turning back of the clock, requiring the Senate to relive the ingloriousness of its past

CHARLES GORDON October 29 1990

How to clean up the Senate mess

ANOTHER VIEW

What should be done is a simple turning back of the clock, requiring the Senate to relive the ingloriousness of its past

CHARLES GORDON

All this trouble began with thoughts of Senate reform. Up to then, the Senate had been doing just fine.

If only people had recognized that. As charged, the Senate was, for the most part, a resting place for political hacks, a reward for services rendered. And as such, it was perfect. It enabled the party system in this country to work. Lured by the thought of a seat in the Red Chamber, rich people financed the Liberal and Conservative parties, and less rich people worked their envelope-stuffing fingers to the bone to get them elected.

The Senate oiled the levers of power. Party functionaries could keep the party functioning, while sitting in the Senate, their salaries contributed by the taxpayer. House of Commons seats for up-and-coming talent could be made available by sending their present occupants to the Other Place. Used creatively, and it frequently was, the undemocratic Senate could help democracy work. Once, Pierre Trudeau appointed a Conservative member of Parliament to the Senate in order to cause a byelection in which a new Liberal hotshot could be elected. (This gave the voters, operating in a typically Canadian way, the opportunity to elect a New Democrat.) Trudeau also created a tradition, carried on by the much-maligned Brian Mulroney, of appointing the odd nonparty person to the Senate, for the purpose of creating confusion.

Meanwhile, in the Red Chamber, the senators dozed, awakening from time to time to vote yes to whatever the government proposed. The sight of all this, along with the sound of snoring and assorted trough noises, offended some people, but the system, when you compare it with what we are seeing now, worked just fine. We didn’t elect the Senate to do anything. In fact, we didn’t elect the Senate, and it didn’t do anything, thus keeping its end of the bargain.

Now look at it. Mulroney filled it full of

Charles Gordon is a columnist with The Ottawa Citizen.

Tories so that it would do something. The Liberals bought party favors and noisemakers and took a refresher course in Grade 3 classroom etiquette in order to do something of their own. Both Liberals and Conservatives say that they are protecting democracy.

The Senate’s function, of serving democracy by just sitting there, has been perverted by those who want it to be something. The Senate is not equipped for this. If the people who appointed senators had thought in terms of the Senate’s being something, they would have appointed an entirely different sort of person to it. There really isn’t all that much that can be done with the present lot.

Nor should there be. All this talk of Senate reform has stirred the blood of the senators, made them feel as if they actually matter and should actually be involved in activity of some sort. Some people want the Senate to be elected. If it were elected it would get in the House of Commons’ way even more than it does now. Some people want equal numbers of senators from all the provinces. Why? Worst of all, some people want the Senate to be effective. Those are the three Es of the muchballyhooed Triple E Senate, a truly bad idea.

It is not the answer. Nor is turning the Red

Chamber into a basketball court, although it would be quite a nice one. Blowing up the Senate, making sure first to evacuate all the people, is an attractive idea to some, but it doesn’t stand up to further analysis. A big hole would be made in the Parliament Buildings, there would be a move to fill it and someone would fill the place where the Senate was with some postmodern structure, with triangular and circular architectural doodads on it, all covered in green glass.

Abolishing the Senate—the idea favored by the NDP once the present Senate does a few things the NDP wants first—is only superficially appealing. What would be done for all those party workers and contributors without a Senate to put them in? Would anybody work and contribute? Would anyone ever give up a Commons seat? Would all people over the age of 60 disappear completely from public life?

The flaws in the abolition argument are apparent. They are not as bad as the argument for reform, which is truly dangerous. Neither is a helpful course of action. What should be done, instead of reform and instead of abolition, is a simple turning back of the clock, requiring the Senate to be what it was, to relive, once again, the ingloriousness of its past.

With that in mind, we should do the following with our senators, present and future:

• Require that they be party hacks, even if they are useful ones. The Senate is about politics, and people who are experienced in politics will have the happiest time there. Surgeons, academics and union leaders will just be miserable there.

• Don’t appoint anyone younger than 65, and let them stay on for life. People over the age of 65 tend not to be in a hurry. A word of caution: many people older than 65, even older than 80, are full of energy, curiosity and dedication to public service. An effective screening process will weed such people out.

• Keep the Senate prominently male. This contributes to the institution’s aura of irrelevancy and makes it unlikely that the public will demand any action from it.

• Keep the property requirement.

• Require of senators that they promise not to attempt to do anything useful, either in the Senate or elsewhere.

• Continue the present attendance requirements, which encourage senators to visit Ottawa from time to time, without allowing them to become bored by it.

• Pay senators well, so as not to allow the institution to lose its appeal to those who should be in it and not somewhere working.

• Allow senators frequent travel, so as to reduce the temptation for them to stay home and take action.

The steps outlined above do not, in any way, represent Senate reform. Senate reform aims at getting senators elected and involved. What is being discussed here is returning the Senate to its original, pure state. Returning the Senate to its original state is aimed at making sure it doesn’t do anyone any harm. Surely, in a country as peaceable as Canada, keeping our governmental institutions from hurting us is a worthy goal.