Cynicism greets new senate appointees

First published: March 13, 2009

In the comments following a breaking news story about the 18 new appointees to the Senate, one author, calling him or herself Dr. Strangelove, expresses a widely felt sense of cynicism.

“Yes, Canada has the same level of corruption as any 3rd (sic) world country. For all those who will or have lost their jobs or can’t find an affordable place to rent on minimum wage – ‘let them eat cake’.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the appointment of CTV broadcaster Mike Duffy, former journalist Pamela Wallin and former Olympic gold medalist Nancy Greene as some of the people filling 18 current vacancies in the Senate. Each will receive $132,000 annual salary indexed to inflation until they retire or reach age 75 followed by a pension.

This flies directly in the face of Harper’s belief in an elected senate and, in the context of a prorogued parliament facing a non-confidence vote when it returns in late January; he brings into question whether or not he adheres to democratic principles and if it is constitutionally possible. Several leading scholars wrote an open letter to La Presse on Dec. 14, 2008, challenging the nominations saying it was illegitimate and a violation of the constitutional ideals and rule of law.

The need for Senate reform cannot be ignored any longer following the prime minister’s actions. No doubt, dealing with the economic crisis facing the country must be the dominant public policy debate between Canadians and the government. But, these appointments and the recent political crisis demonstrate the need for a political body with the moral authority to provide a check and balance for an ever-increasingly powerful prime minister and the PMO.

The prime minister’s unfettered power over the appointment of Senators and the way it is used for partisan purposes is the single most significant factor in undermining the legitimacy of the upper chamber, according the Institute for Research on Public Policy in a report release in the past year.

Evan Sotiropoulos, in an article called Reformed Senate as Check on Prime Ministerial Powers, argues the concentration of the PM over parliament is becoming a very real problem. Backbenchers, like Northumberland’s Rick Norlock, have little or no influence over cabinet. A lack of experience, party discipline and any power base to confront cabinet means there is virtually no effective voices to challenge policy or decisions.

A public policy forum in 2000 surveyed 500 senior government officials, who ranked MPs second to last in their ability to influence policy.

Canadians need to realize a solution is at hand that would meet most of the criteria demanded by Senate reformers, as well as provide some necessary balance back into Canadian politics.

A senate elected using proportional representation should be at the centre of a national debate. This could be achieved through the use of the existing election system rather than creating anything new. Voters would continue to elect local representatives from their riding to sit in the House of Commons. The resulting popular vote could assign seats in the Senate, giving the political parties the ability to select members for the Senate. Preferably, these members would come from a list of elected party representatives selected prior to the national election.

This would empower political parties to reach out to regions; minorities and other segments of the population ensuring these were represented. It would also reinvigorate the role of political parties between elections, allowing them to sustain greater grassroots involvement outside of national campaigns or policy conventions. A political party would need to meet some kind of threshold, like five per cent of the total vote (or some other percentage) to ensure it could be considered legitimate.

There is also a need to limit the senator’s term, but provide a length long enough to ensure some stability and institutional memory. There could be eight-year terms. In this way, the senate could counterbalance the shorter terms within the House of Commons, where the government must adhere to a fixed election date. Having half the senate elected every four years may be the key to having sufficient turnover to ensure accountability, but also provide stability over time.

The senate must continue to be a body that provides sober second thought to legislation generated in the House. It also must adhere to a national perspective, representing broader interests, compared to the partisan nature of the lower chamber. It also does important work in seeking expertise and technical advice, as well as generating reports of national importance. With the moral authority provided by elections, it may be able to apply greater pressure on MPs so these vital activities cannot be ignored. This would hopefully create a more dynamic and responsive parliament. As well, it would keep the prime minister and his office in check.

Rather than waiting for the House of Commons to resolve this important debate, it is time for the senators to take up reforming themselves. Possibly, the newest members appointed earlier this week could lead the charge. Already Alberta Progressive Conservative Senator Elaine McCoy is advocating for change. There are most likely others.

The prime minister has left Canadians with a piece of coal in their Christmas stockings with these appointments. And, if he is not careful, he may suffer the same fate at the polls, as Marie Antoinette did at the guillotine.

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