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Diane Francis

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How the Senate Became Canada's National Joke

Posted: 02/11/2013 12:00 am

In the corporate world, sleepy or dysfunctional boards of directors of public companies often and suddenly find their corporations taken over or besieged by a hedge fund or aggressive change-agent.

In the media world, sleepy or dysfunctional content providers often suddenly find their audiences disappear, thus driving them out of business.

Not so in the world of Canadian politics.

Canada's sleepy and dysfunctional "board of directors/content providers", aka its Senate, thrives without justification and without an audience. Its shareholders, and CEO Stephen Harper, disdain the place and yet it continues. At cost of roughly $400 million in salaries and expenses, the overhead is totally unjustifiable.

Besides that, no self-respecting democracy should grant power to persons on the basis of patronage. The Americans and Australians have Senates but Canada has stuck with a version of Britain's silly House of Lords.

The problem is, for current Prime Minister Stephen Harper and others who want to fix this, there are two "poison pills" impeding change: the government of Quebec and the 105-member Senate itself.

Quebec has fiercely fought Senate reform because it believes it is entitled to 25 per cent of its seats, an unfair privilege given the demographic and economic shifts in the country. The other "pill" is that any reforms or abolition of the Senate would have to be approved by a majority of Senators.

The Prime Minister has asked the Supreme Court to rule on Quebec's assertion that its Senatorial entitlement is constitutionally guaranteed, that Quebec or the provinces must be consulted regarding reforms and that the Senate can be abolished and, if so, how.

So what would reforms look like? There have been a couple of dozen proposed over the history of the country but the one with the most currency, supported by Harper and Preston Manning in the past, is the Triple-E Senate. This would involve the election of ten senators from each province. (Obviously, one would hope that Prince Edward Island would have to be lumped in with another Atlantic Province to be fair and the territories given ten Senators.)

Other templates include the U.S. Senate with two elected Senators per state or Australia's Senate with 12 for each of its six giant states.

The importance of this reform cannot be overlooked. Regional-based representation counterbalances the domination of politics and policies by the populous. It would prevent another National Energy Program raid on Alberta's oil revenues by the federal government. It would prevent the west from always being trumped by the east in general. It would help nation-build by forcing collaboration and confrontation.

But abolition would also do the trick and bring the added advantage of shedding needless bureaucracy, expense, red tape and politics. Triple E fans may argue abolition means there will be no checks and balances on the majority (or representation based on population) that rules the House of Commons. But they would be wrong. The checks and balances in the Canadian federal system are the provinces who already enjoy more power than states in the U.S. or Australia.

If the Supreme Court hands Quebec a veto over any changes to the Senate then abolition is the only choice. A veto will lead to the type of self-destructive brinkmanship games that separatists crave. But if the Supreme Court also says abolition is possible, then that's the only option to pursue.

The Senate's latest scandals rekindle the need to move as quickly as possible. One Senator is in jail this week, and been booted out of the Tory caucus. He, along with two others, are being audited to check out their residency claims and expense accounts. Another Senator is rumored to be in the auditor's sights.

This is nothing new. Many Senators throughout history have been jailed, audited and expelled or forced to quit. The late, and irreverent, CBC pundit Larry Zolf wrote a funny book in 1985 about all the scandals to date called Survival of the Fattest: An Irreverent View of the Senate.

The Senate has even embarrassed circumspect, more temperate Canadians. Novelist Margaret Attwood once described it as "a featherbed for fallen Liberals". Now it's mostly Conservatives. By the way, that's not to say that there aren't some outstanding individuals in the Senate. Some of my friends are there, but the institution itself is puzzling and perturbing. It's a national joke.
For instance, Brian Mulroney, one month before he left office, appointed a close friend, supporter and hotelier from the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Montreal to the Senate. He left after his poor attendance record was revealed along with others.

Paul Martin Jr. awarded his friend and advisor, Francis Fox, to a Senate seat after Fox had been shamed years before into resigning as a Member of Parliament for forging the signature of his mistress's husband to help her get an abortion.

In the 1970s, Liberal bagman and Trudeau supporter Louis Giguere became a figure in a scandal known as "Sky Shops" but defied calls for his resignation and remain on the payroll until he was 75 years. In the 1930s, two Liberal Senators were implicated in the Beauharnois scandal. One was demoted within the party and other resigned from the Senate.

More recently, in 1990 Saskatchewan Tory Eric Berntson went from politics to the Senate but in 1999 was sentenced to prison for illegally diverting government allowance, forcing him to resign.

Less egregious, is the reality that most Senators collect their $132,000 plus enormous expense accounts as a reward for party loyalty.

I have always supported the West's demand for Senate Reform, but -- upon sober second thought -- I believe the best course of action is for our Prime Minister to become the political equivalent of a hedge fund manager.

His job is to enhance shareholder value and there's no better course of action than to ignore threats of litigation by Quebec, stop the losses to reputation and treasure and shut this national embarrassment down immediately.

This article previously appeared in the Financial Post

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  • All info comes from the <a href="http://www.hilltimes.com/100-most-influential/2013/01/28/the-top-101-most-influential-people-in-government-and-politics-in-2013/33514">Hill Times' most influential people in government list for 2013</a>.

  • 10. Wayne Wouters

    Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to Cabinet.

  • 9. Nigel Wright

    Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister.

  • 8. Thomas Mulcair

    Leader of the federal NDP.

  • 7. Mark Carney

    Governor of the Bank of Canada, but soon to become governor of the Bank of England.

  • 6. Ed Fast

    Minister for International Trade and Minister for the Asia-Pacific Gateway.

  • 5. Tony Clement

    President of the Treasury Board.

  • 4. John Baird

    Minister of Foreign Affairs.

  • 3. Jason Kenney

    Minister of Immigration.

  • 2. Jim Flaherty

    Minister of Finance.

  • 1. Stephen Harper

    Prime Minister of Canada.





 

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