CANADA

Looking for some respect

Senators want to modernize the upper chamber

NANCY WOOD November 30 1992
CANADA

Looking for some respect

Senators want to modernize the upper chamber

NANCY WOOD November 30 1992

Looking for some respect

Senators want to modernize the upper chamber

CANADA

For the past two years, Nathan Nurgitz has lived in uncertainty. Like the rest of his colleagues in Parliament’s upper chamber, the 58-year-old Manitoba senator watched as Canadians haggled over replacing the appointed Senate with an elected, equal and more effective chamber. Those negotiations eventually became part of the Charlottetown accord, which would have created an elected Senate with six members from each province—and left Nurgitz without a job. “It was never fun going out to a party,” he recalled recently. “Everyone wanted to know what kind of work I was out of.” But on the evening of Oct. 26, as the results of the constitutional referendum trickled in, it quickly became obvious that Nurgitz’s $64,400-a-year position, as well as his travel allowance and an additional $10,100 in expenses, were secure.

Still, even he acknowledges that the No vote did not represent an enthusiastic endorsement of the appointed Senate. Says Nurgitz, a lawyer and former Conservative party president:

“People want change. I am not so foolish as to think that they voted for the status quo.”

Most of Nurgitz’s fellow senators appear to share that view. Since its creation in 1867, the upper chamber has functioned largely as a rubber stamp for the House of Commons. But an increasing number of senators— perhaps shaken by the widespread public disaffection with the political process—now say that it is time for the Senate to begin acting as the chamber of “sober second thought” that it was originally designed to be. Said another Manitoba senator, Conservative Janis Johnson: “Now that the institution is going to be here, we have to deal with it. It is part of our way of government.” Added Johnson, 46: “There is lots of room for reform without having to have a constitutional amendment.” Johnson’s peers offer a wide array of suggestions for change—many of them in the spirit of the Charlottetown accord. For one thing, many senators say that they plan to show less servitude to the political parties that appointed them and more commitment to the regions they are supposed to represent. “We do not intend to spend the last few years of our lives being jaded sycophants,” said Nova Scotia Senator Finlay MacDonald, 68, who was appointed by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in 1984. MacDonald added that he wants to be able to look back on

his years in the Senate and know that he has served his country well. Said the senator: “I just want to be deserving of the appointment.” Conservative Senator E. W. (Staff) Barootes, a former Regina urologist who is only a year away from the upper chamber's mandatory retirement age of 75, appeared particularly resentful of the strictures of party loyalty. He supported the Charlottetown accord, he said, because, “We were going to get rid of party discipline and move toward a round-table system, one with legitimate regionalism.” In the absence of such reform, Barootes suggests that senators should cease attending party caucus meetings when the Senate reconvenes. “We are beginning to develop some regionalization, some independence,” he adds. “The government would get its money bills through but we, on the other hand, are going to scruti-

nize legislation in such a way that we are not under the thumb of our party.”

To some extent, the Senate’s future will be determined by how senators will be chosen to fill existing vacancies. In 1990, the Senate was temporarily enlarged from its normal 104 seats when Mulroney used a little-known provision to appoint eight extra members, giving the Tories a majority, with which to pass legislation implementing the Goods and Services Tax. But after a string of retirements, resignations and deaths, the upper chamber now has only 96 members—50 Conservatives, 41 Liberals and five Independents.

The Conservative Leader in the Senate, Lowell Murray, insists that Mulroney should return to the traditional practice of appointing members to serve until retirement. But others, including Ontario Conservative Senator Consiglio Di Nino, 54, say that they would like to see full-fledged reform of the upper chamber, with senators limited to short, fixed terms. For his part, Liberal Senate Leader Royce Frith says that new senators—in the spirit of the Charlottetown accord—should be elected. Over time, as appointed senators retired, the chamber would become an elected body. Said Frith: “It would be nicely Canadian— Canadians like progress, but they like it to be gradual. You do not jump right into the deep end of the pool.”

Some senators also wonder whether prominent Canadians would now accept a Senate appointment. Said Di Nino: “The cream of the crop should sit in the red chamber. But I think a lot of them would say ‘no’ today.” But changing the Senate may be far easier said than done. Quebec Senator Thérèse Lavoie-Roux, a former Quebec health minister, is known to some of her colleagues as “the Grim Reaper” because of her insistence that senators must reduce their spending. Declares Lavoie-Roux: “I firmly believe that I am not entitled to spend taxpayers’ money unless it directly benefits them.” But many others have chafed at her proposed reforms. Said LavoieRoux: “The senators who have been there the longest have acquired rights—or, at least, acquired habits.” While many of these same senators now say they are in favor of reform, the political habits of the past 125 years may be harder to break than many of them presume.

NANCY WOOD in Ottawa