Nathan Cullen wants to know how terrible a senator has to act before he or she is thrown out of the red chamber — and it seems many Canadians agree with him.
“We have senators under investigation, you have senators spouting racist views,” the NDP MP said in an interview with The Huffington Post Canada in his Ottawa office, adding there’s “no accountability” in the Senate.
Nathan Cullen holds a press conference on Parliament Hill in 2015. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
Cullen was referring to senators Don Meredith and Lynn Beyak, who are at the centre of two separate scandals and have brought renewed scrutiny to how the Senate disciplines its own members.
The NDP's democratic reform critic from B.C. said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent change — phasing out patronage appointments — feels “very superficial” against limited rules to remove sitting senators.
“The changes were mostly cosmetic, yet the institution's culture and inherent anti-democratic nature remains as solid as ever,” Cullen told The Huffington Post Canada. “And because they’re accountable to no one, they act like they’re accountable to no one.”
A majority of Canadians (61 per cent) agree with him, according to a new poll by the Angus Reid Institute released Wednesday. Sixty-one per cent also think the five criteria listed in the constitution under which a sitting senator can be fired is too limited.
Twenty-two per cent of respondents said the current rules are “about right” while 17 per cent said they “don’t know” or “can’t say.”
Reforming the Senate and updating reasons for which a senator can be fired would require re-opening the constitution, which hasn’t been changed since 1887. Abolition would require unanimous consensus by all the provinces and Parliament.
Cullen thinks the Senate should be abolished, but his opinion lies with 31 per cent of respondents in the Angus Reid Institute poll.
It’s a significant drop compared to the 50 per cent who supported abolition in November 2013 at the height of the expense scandal that snared Senators Patrick Brazeau, Mike Duffy, and Pamela Wallin. A trial cleared Duffy of 31 criminal charges related to his expenses, including fraud.
Charges against Brazeau were dropped and no charges were laid against Wallin.
More support for Senate reform
However, the poll suggests support for reform has grown. In November 2013, 43 per cent of respondents said they wanted to see reforms in the Senate. That number has increased to 53 per cent today.
Looking into the Senate chamber in Ottawa. (Photo: The Senate of Canada)
In that vein, more people said they want to leave the red chamber as-is (16 per cent) compared to the seven per cent back in 2013.
The Angus Reid Institute surveyed 1,508 randomly selected Canadians through an online form between April 7-10. The results have a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
‘There is much more work to be done’
Last month, Senate Ethics Officer Lyse Ricard released a inquiry report that concluded Meredith breached the red chamber’s updated code of ethics by pursuing a sexual relationship with teenager.
Police, who investigated the matter, found the senator did not break any laws. Now, his case is before the Senate’s standing committee on ethics and conflict of interest to recommend how to discipline Meredith — either by withholding his pay, suspension or expulsion.
Beyak, a Conservative senator from northwestern Ontario, received public and political backlash over comments she made about Canada’s residential school system. She riled people after claiming some of the “good things” that happened at the schools have been “overshadowed.”
She cited excerpts from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 report that heard from 6,000 witnesses across Canada.
LeadNow launched a petition urging Beyak’s removal from the Senate’s aboriginal people’s committee over her March 7 speech. Politicians also called for her resignation.
Nearly 6,000 people signed the petition before Beyak was eventually removed from the committee.
“Political correctness is stifling opinion and thoughtful conversation.”
— Sen. Lynn Beyak in a statement
In a statement released on April 6, the Conservative senator thanked supporters and said it’s her “duty and privilege to speak on behalf of Canadians.”
“Political correctness is stifling opinion and thoughtful conversation that we must be allowed to have if we are to truly improve our great country,” it read.
“More and more people are taking reconciliation seriously, and won't stand by as politicians debase indigenous peoples’ horrific experiences with Canadian colonialism,” Brittany Smith, a LeadNow campaigner behind the petition, told HuffPost Canada in an email.
“There is much more work to be done, but Beyak's removal is a sign that we're moving in the right direction.”