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The Real Senate Scandal Is the System

07/04/2013 06:05 EDT | Updated 09/03/2013 05:12 EDT
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Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, North America

Let's get it out in the open right from the start - anyone who tells you anything about the Senate of Canada has an agenda. Those that praise its good policy work, constitutional soundness, and genteel nobility do so because they have a dog in the race. Those with a boatload of reasons to abolish it do so because their dog is there too. Journalists and pundits fall in along the continuum between love and hate as well. And hardly anyone these days is free of an opinion on what should be done with this bothered and bewildered Senate of ours.

Given the abundance of ink spilled and hot air spewed on the topic, it might be helpful to organize all the chatter somehow. Given limited space, we might start with four of the more popular refrains.

The Senate does good policy and legislative work.

This is, in the main, true. But do not take anyone's word for it, including mine. A little Googling will get you to Senate Hansard, Committee reports, and links to individual Senator Pages. Or if TV is more your style, check out CPAC (the Canadian Public Affairs Channel) where you can watch committee sessions from beginning to end in either official language. Of course Senators themselves and Senate enthusiasts will tell you how brilliant and extraordinary their work is. But it is best to decide for yourself. If you choose not to read through at least one page of Hansard, or watch one committee meeting in its entirety, your opinion will remain uninformed.

Senators don't do anything and get a lot of money for it.

Here again it is best to avoid those who trumpet this view without evidence. The Senate site reveals who is on which committees, what they contributed, and what they said or didn't say in Chamber. Individual Senator sites will also highlight contributions of a given Senator inside and outside the Chamber. There is an old joke about an appointment to the Senate being a "task-less thanks." That may have been true back in the day when all parliamentarians were drunk by noon, but reading, viewing or attending even one full committee meeting will show you otherwise. Look, for example, at the recent work done on Cyber-bullying by the Human Rights Committee. Read first, then pass judgment on its value.

The Senate is a smooth running democratic institution except for some bad apples.

False. For all its excellent policy work (I can say that now, having finally read quite a lot of it!), the Senate, I am sorry to tell you, is a medieval nightmare when it comes to its internal administration. This is not because of any evil intent or incompetence. It is because the Senate is a political institution born in a different age. It hails from a time when the nobility ruled over the rest of us and were accountable to no one. Internal matters were handled in dark corners and smoky bars. With a few drinks, hearty laughs, and pats on the back, decisions were made about how to handle potentially troublesome political situations and Senate life continued on as always.

Even today, when Canadians are demanding accountability and transparency in the face of scandal, you will hear that the rules of the Senate are "just fine" and that the "bad apples" have been caught. Do not believe this. Or at least, please be skeptical and demand credible evidence. In order to distinguish a bad apple from a good one you have to have a trustworthy and transparent method of apple testing. In the current case, one apple is tossed in the garbage bin while another, identical in every way, is deemed golden and pure. An apple can be deemed fine by an outside audit and yet found rotten by the Senate. Still others are deemed okay, then not, then okay again if they say sorry. In 2013, such arbitrariness will not do.

There is a simple fix to all this mess.

False. There are ideas on the table -- some simple and some complex. But there are positive signs. Outgoing Senate Leader Marjory Le Breton must be credited for calling in the Auditor General. This is an enormous step forward. The RCMP will determine if there has been any actual criminal wrongdoing. Until then, as we live in Canada, everyone, including Senators, is innocent until proven guilty. The Senate ethics officer might also have a look at the way the Senate addresses expenses and residency issues.

The best idea so far, however, comes to us courtesy of NDP MP Peter Julian. Mr. Julian's radical transparency plan for the House of Commons was unanimously accepted by all parties and will put an end to the murky and secretive Board of Internal Economy in the House. This must happen in the Senate as well if it is to have any chance of surviving. The incoming Chair of the Senate Board of Internal Economy recently dismissed the idea of "conducting investigations openly." But one hopes he can be convinced that this is the only way forward.To be a viable and sustainable institution the Senate must do away with its quirky, politically charged, secretive, backroom style of management. Following the advice of Deloitte, it must revise all travel and housing policies and enforce the rules equally among all Senators. The process for dealing with suspected non-compliance with Senate policy must be open, transparent, and equitable.

When people are accused of submitting ineligible expenses, they must be provided the opportunity to explain themselves. Otherwise you have a room of Senators meeting in secret, changing the rules on whims, imposing penalties retroactively, and failing to explain any of this to anyone including those whom they accuse of misdeeds. Such a system cannot be trusted to distinguish a good apple from a bad one. The system itself is the rotten apple. If you look very carefully at how the Senate operates, you may find that the system itself is the scandal.

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