If a single positive observation can be made about Canada’s greatly maligned Senate, it’s this: It is resilient.
Like a bad rash defying all manner of prescription ointments, the Senate persists, 105 patronage appointees strong — at an annual cost to taxpayers of $92.2 million.
There is so much wrong with the institution that calls for its reform date back to 1874.
But it endures, little changed, save for the 1965 capping of Senate service at age 75.
Calls for reform or abolition are once again ringing out across the land following reports of expense claim shenanigans in the Red Chamber — including some "very unusual" spending by Saskatchewan Sen. Pamela Wallin, in the words of Conservative Sen. David Tkachuk — and, of course, suspension last week of Quebec Sen. Patrick Brazeau, facing charges of assault and sexual assault.
Democracy Watch, a government watchdog group in Ottawa, is the latest to call for the institution to be vaporized. It believes any real reform would require constitutional change, "so abolishing the Senate is no more difficult than any other option."
That’s a valid point: All options to address the body’s failings are going to be a hike up Everest — requiring parliamentary and/or provincial approval.
Since becoming prime minister seven years ago, Stephen Harper has aspired to transform the Upper House into an elected body whose membership would serve only eight or nine years.
Conservatives have introduced Senate reforms both in the Senate and Commons — Bills S-4; S-7, C-19; C-43; C-20. They have all gone nowhere for lack of required support.
Earlier this month, the government asked the Supreme Court to clarify powers to reform or abolish the institution.
Abolition might be the best option, although an Angus Reid poll last week shows only 36 per cent favour that option — only 40 per cent of respondents think a Senate is needed. Provincial legislatures certainly manage without second chambers.
It is worth noting that if the Supreme Court judges sanction Harper’s plan for elected senators with term limits, the Senate hornets nest would only grow worse.
Elected senators would embolden the Red Chamber with new legitimacy, making B.C.’s under-representation more problematic and prompting Senate clashes with the elected Commons.
Democracy Watch co-ordinator Tyler Sommers warns: "Both bodies (would) have the democratic legitimacy to reject each other’s proposals."
Notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s pending opinion, Canadians may have to accept the notion that all that can be done with respect to Canada’s Senate is tinkering.
But such tinkering could make the institution more tolerable.
Senators, paid $132,000 annually, should be eminently qualified and politically unaligned, to serve as well-informed, non-partisan voices.
Prime ministers have always appointed party hacks to the Senate, serving the interests of the governing party, but excluding New Democrats and creating unhelpful partisan imbalances in the chamber.
At present, thanks to Harper’s own excesses, 64 Conservatives sit in the Senate, beside 36 Liberals and not a single NDP member. What would happen if the NDP became the government in 2015? Can you imagine the legislative conflict that would follow?
Appointments should be taken out of the PM’s hands, to be made by a respected citizens’ committee of judges and Order of Canada recipients.
Senators also need to stop conducting their affairs as though they belong to a private club. Vigorous external audits of ethics and expenses are long overdue.
When it comes to the Senate, Canadians should heed the Serenity Prayer: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference."
» Barbara Yaffe is a national affairs columnist for the Vancouver Sun.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition February 20, 2013