Don't Let a Few Bad Apples Spoil the Senate

05/31/2013 12:24 EDT | Updated 07/31/2013 05:12 EDT

"The difference between a statesman and a politician," someone once said (I can't recall who), "is that the statesman thinks he belongs to the State, and the politician thinks the State belongs to him." There is more reality to this keen observation than we might suspect.

The kind of politics we have been experiencing for some time now sees you and me as mere supplicants to be manipulated through the offering of the odd morsel. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to note that our present political dysfunction finds its centre in the low regard with which parties views the average citizen -- a judgment which sees the reverse administered in equal measure. Mutual contempt. If things remain this way, we won't be able to negotiate our way out of our present predicament.

We often forget just how many great Senators have kept rampant politics at bay through reasoned and compelling arguments that often put the present House of Commons to shame. James Clarke once wrote that, "A politician thinks of the next election. A statesman of the next generation." The Canadian Senate has most often acted in ways more like the latter than the former. Despite its recent troubles, the Senate has often shown the valued propensity to rise above the squalor and partisanship of the House.

Surely Canadians can spot the difference between a Mike Duffy and a Romeo Dallaire, or between a Pamela Wallin and Muriel Ferguson! The quality of character and intelligence in Senator Hugh Segal simply dwarfs the rather sad record of Patrick Brazeau. The average citizen can sense the distinction a kilometre away.

Let's leave the Duffys et al to their fate and consider the others just mentioned.

I worked fairly extensively with Romeo Dallaire on a number of initiatives and simply came away dwarfed by his experience and commitment. The reception he receives while speaking in the Senate is no less profound than when he challenges university students to pick up the mantle and lead Canada into the next generation. He is a saddened heart always on the move, driven by memories of Rwanda and a Canadian global influence lost. Dallaire is one of the greatest individuals of his generation and he is a Senator.

Muriel McQueen Ferguson is a virtual unknown to most Canadians, yet the ripples stemming out from her courageous actions over the years continue to have effect today. In 1972, she was the first female Speaker of the Senate and the first female Speaker in Canada's Parliament. She opened up the Page program for the first time to female students. She was a true Canadian champion of the first order and to this day no one really knows what her political affiliation was.

Hugh Segal has been labelled the "Happy Warrior". He has served with distinction in the Senate and has developed a remarkable ability to cross party lines, and co-chaired a Senate committee that put out a major report on poverty and Canada's social safety net. A "Red Tory," he was appointed to the Senate by Paul Martin (one of three Conservatives). Past Conservative PMs have, on occasion, appointed Liberals or Independents.

Distinguished Senators like constitutional expert Eugene Forsey guided the partisan House of Commons through many rocky shoals and built legislative and research records that still serve useful purpose today. They lived as examples of James Clarke's lesson of those who think of the next generation instead of just the next election campaign.

Sadly, the record of the Senate in recent years has been a troubled one, with the quality Senators being eclipsed by those in the Senate who possessed lesser lights or overtly partisan intentions. Reform is clearly required and wholesome debate on the subject is necessary.

But I was elevated and informed by the likes of the Dallaires and the Segals -- so much so that I developed a sense of hope from the chamber down the hall from the Commons where I worked. I was reminded again of how often politicians come across as those with whom it can be easy to disagree, but how certain key Senators persuaded me and assisted in clearing my mind, embracing new research, and working with them for a better Canada.

They are the kind of people who couldn't function in the House because its partisan trappings would only undermine their spirits, as they did mine. With a reformed Senate in place, we can clearly do better.

Controversial Canadian Senators