The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

J.J. McCullough Headshot

Media Bites: How Do We Solve a Problem Like the Senate?

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

Momma always told me "one bad apple don't spoil the whole bunch." Judge people as individuals, not by association.

"Unless you're talking about the Canadian Senate," Momma added. "In that case, go nuts."

Browse the recent editorial pages of any major Canadian newspaper and you'll see a suspiciously large number of voices expressing sweeping disdain for this country's upper chamber at precisely the moment its worst-behaved member looms large in the headlines. Noted senatorial basket case Patrick Brazeau was arrested on charges of domestic abuse early Thursday morning, and the papers filled with Senate-bashing before the cops had time to take down the yellow tape.

But it's all just a coincidence, the columnists insist.

Patrick's problems are "of course, entirely distinct from the institutional problem of a standing affront to democracy right there on Parliament Hill" says John Geddes in Maclean's. But as long as we're on the subject...

BLOG CONTINUES AFTER SLIDESHOW

Twitter On Brazeau Charges
of
Share
Tweet
Advertisement
Share this
close
Current Slide

Yeah, agrees the Ottawa Citizen editorial board, while debating the future of the Senate is important, the "private legal troubles of Senator Brazeau should not be part of that debate." But since you asked...

Editorial writing is by nature reactionary. Current events dictate subject matter, and the columnist's opinions are frequently forced, fudged, or facile as a result. But the fact that Canadian opinionators seem to only care about the Senate when one of its most unrepresentative members does something unusually bad suggests this is a political body that doesn't really evoke strong feelings from the punditsphere beyond the easy moral superiority that comes with finger-wagging a few fringe politicos now and then. (Does anyone agree with the Toronto Star's claim that the Senate is "beginning to look like a biker bar"? Or was that just a fun thing to say?)

The trouble with the Senate is not that hacks or idiots or criminals occasionally find their way into its chairs. Unqualified nobodies fill seats by the dozen in the House of Commons and the provincial legislatures; morons and crooks have been repeatedly elected prime minister. But at least these people won an honest and respectable office through a fair and open contest. That certain senators' political career paths are paved with "thoughtless self-destructive gestures," in the words of the National Post's Jon Kay, might reveal something unseemly about the class of people who crave political careers in the first place, but it's no more damning of the Senate as an institution than Rob Ford's shenanigans were an indictment of the Toronto city council.

If the opulent, undemocratic nature of Canada's upper chamber is something that truly annoys, it's an outrage that should consume the editorial pages constantly. According to the official parliamentary website, there have been 46 bills passed by parliament since 2011 -- that's 46 pieces of legislation that only became law because they were able to gain legal approval from a gang of men and women not a single Canadian citizen entrusted with that authority. But you'll be waiting a long time for an editorial column bearing the headline "passage of law gives another reason the Senate should just be abolished,"  though there's really no more obvious case to be made.

It's quite revealing, in fact, that very few of the about-Brazeau-but-not-about-Brazeau Senate slags even bother to make a case for the sort of reformed Senate they want to see (if they want to see a Senate at all) beyond one lacking Brazeau himself.

Instead, authors whine and wallow. Abolition is "impossible," pouts Jon Ibbitson in the Globe. You know, because of the constitution and stuff. A true "impossibility" agrees David Akin in the Sun. And elections would just be a "recipe for gridlock, or worse" scoffs the Toronto Star. Will the damn thing "ever be fixed? Don't bet on it," concludes Mr. Geddes in Maclean's.

This is the filthy cul-de-sac which the brightest minds of Canadian commentary are content to endlessly circle. The institution sucks, but it can't be changed, so let's just busy ourselves with the occasional condemnation of the individuals residing within in it ("did you know there once was a senator who spent all his time living in Mexico? Ho ho, how unbecoming!") and hope that passes for sufficient critical engagement.

Canadians can live long, happy lives in a nation with a superfluous upper chamber (we have for almost 150 years, after all), but of all the chronic dysfunctions that plague this country, the longevity of the Senate may be the most uniquely depressing. It's an institution with a single-digit approval rating that survives almost entirely due to small-minded apathy, and a passionate, almost proud insistence, championed by the most smugly intelligent among us, that the status quo can never be changed. Other nations have monuments to heroism and victory, Canada has a 105-member living, breathing shrine commentating surrender to difficulty.

It's unfair to judge an entire country by its worst failing, but considering that we Canadians haven't exactly shown an abundance of innovation when it comes to tackling the other big problems of our time, be it health care, economic growth, climate change, native rights, immigration, or whatever else, there's an obvious conclusion about national character begging to be drawn.

Brazeau might not be the Senate's most representative member, but in a nation whose potential for success remains perennially suppressed by the tyranny of timid ambition, the Senate is surely our most representative problem.