Canada's Senate Problems: From Brazeau, To Duffy, To Zimmerberger

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CANADA SENATE
A view of the Senate chamber on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Jan. 13, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick | CP

OTTAWA - It's been a rough year for Canada's upper house.

Thursday's ouster of Sen. Patrick Brazeau from the Conservative caucus after reports of a domestic disturbance at his home is just the latest in a string of negative news for the Senate, from controversial expense claims to mental incompetence.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently announced he would be asking the Supreme Court for its opinion on his plans for Senate reform.

But proposed term limits and Senate elections aside, the Senate's image has taken a beating — with some only too eager to continue wielding the club.

"The Senate sees itself as unaccountable. It sees itself as completely protected from all the little peons who pay their wages — and that's not good enough," said NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus.

The NDP wants to abolish the Senate.

"If we're going to see real Senate accountability, then right now, today, the prime minister needs to say he's had enough. Canadians are fed up with these guys."

Some of controversies for the red chamber over the last year:

— Conservative Senate Leader Marjory LeBreton asks for a study into attendance rules after The Canadian Press reports last summer that the youngest senator — Brazeau — also has the worst attendance. He cited personal reasons for the absences.

— Septuagenarian Liberal Sen. Rod Zimmer's marital situation with his 23-year-old wife were laid bare after she is charged with causing a disturbance onboard a flight.

— Liberal Sen. Joyce Fairbairn retires after it is revealed she had been suffering from dementia, but continued to attend the chamber and vote with the knowledge of her party.

— A handful of Conservative senators balk at their own government's plans for Senate reform. Harper does not use his majority in both houses to push legislation, ultimately resorting to the Supreme Court for an opinion.

— An audit of housing expense claims is commissioned after reports suggest Conservative senators Mike Duffy and Brazeau are charging for living allowances designed for out-of-province residents, even though they apparently live in the Ottawa-area.

"We've had a period of time when I think it's fair to say there's been a very rough patch for the Senate and I'm sure the Senate itself is as troubled by these developments as Canadians would be," said Liberal MP Ralph Goodale, the party's deputy House leader.

"It's going to be very important for the Senate to reflect that concern, and demonstrate their ... willingness to fix the problem."

Allan Gregg, chairman of polling firm Harris Decima, said the his last big survey on the Senate in 2010 showed antipathy toward the Senate. The survey of 1,000 Canadians said 59 per cent were in favour of elections to the upper house, and 27 per cent wanted it abolished altogether.

"They should do what the government is asking them to do, which is limit their terms and put themselves out for elected positions," Gregg said.

"The structural change would probably have to come before there would be any significant change of attitude that this a relevant organization that is worth keeping."

The Senate has put a bigger emphasis on communications over the last few years, with a centralized media-relations shop, a Twitter account, and more information online.

Still, some elements of the Senate remain stuck in the past. The Senate attendance register can only be viewed by visiting an Ottawa office building. Debates are not easily searched online as they are with the House of Commons, and the chamber is not televised.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story, a previous story wrongly said Sen. Rod Zimmer was a Conservative. He is a Liberal senator

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