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The Senate Needs More Plain Janes and Fewer Divas

08/15/2013 08:51 EDT | Updated 10/15/2013 05:12 EDT

When it comes to Senate reform, declared Justin Trudeau last spring, my priority is to "improve the kind of senators we get rather than scrap the institution."

In true Liberal form, this position is supposed to occupy the pragmatic centre space between the Conservatives' "terrible idea" of electing senators and the NDP's "demagogic" plan to abolish the chamber entirely.

The Trudeau thesis holds that there's nothing wrong with an appointed upper house in theory, the government just needs to somehow ensure we're "able to get more Commander Hadfield types in to the Senate and less Mike Duffy types." Justin's floated a couple ideas on how we might do that, including assembling a committee of Senate talent scouts to recommend names to the PM, rather than leaving it up to his own terrible judgment.

The irony in all this, however, is that it's hard to imagine a world in which a theoretical senate talent committee would have denied an appointment to someone like Pamela Wallin, a paragon of Canadian achievement turned #1 Senate swindler of taxpayer cash.

In my copy of Canadian Who's Who, that horribly pretentious phonebook-sized directory of this country's most important living citizens, Mrs. Wallin's profile is about three times the length of any of the lesser W's around her. Conserving letters to ensure there's enough space to document all her glories, the book summarizes Pamela's career as "Journalist & broadcaster, CTV, CBC and Toronto Star 1975-1995," the first woman in Canadian network TV to be appointed host of a national news broadcast, and "Host & Producer" of at least eight other shows.

She has, it continues, "interviewed Prime Ministers Trudeau, Mulroney, Chretien, Turner, Clark and Campbell," holds ten honorary degrees, and is the "recipient of many awards," including being "honoured by Queen Elizabeth as Outstanding Cdn. Achiever" and getting named one of "Canada's Most Powerful Top 100 Women." Of course, it adds, the "most precious recognition of her career was being honoured by residents of her hometown Wadena, Sask. renaming a main street Pamela Wallin Drive."

It really stretches the bounds of plausibility, in other words, to believe Justin Trudeau (or any other theoretical, better-than-Harper prime minister) would have denied this woman, so accomplished and accredited, some kinda political sinecure. In fact, the question isn't even theoretical -- in 2002 Prime Minister Chretien was impressed enough to make Wallin Canada's consul-general in New York City, a position her official Order of Canada biography claims she used to rebuild "critical trust after the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001."

And yet she still ended up lining her pockets with over $120,000 of taxpayer cash. How'd such a good girl go bad?

Personally, I'd argue the problem with Wallin was not that she was a woman of insufficiently high quality for the Senate, but rather that her quality was far too high.

Stay with me here.

Over the last decade or so, Canada's upper chamber has gradually evolved into something of a china cabinet of living national treasures (or at least b-level celebrities) since current political wisdom holds that appointing "distinguished Canadian" senators help give the institution a greater veneer of public legitimacy. Today's Senate roster thus not only includes the usual assortment of worn-out partisan hacks, but also military heros like Romeo Dallaire, retired sports stars like Jacques Demers and Larry Smith, and of course award-winning journalists like Mike, er, Duffy.

The danger with appointing senators entirely on the basis of their apolitical fame, however, is that such appointees will rather logically believe they're being recruited to serve as high-profile celebrity mascots of the federal government, as opposed to a run-of-the-mill backbench drudges. A "different kind" of senator, as Wallin herself put it.

And indeed, in reading the Deloitte audit on Wallin's Senate expenditures, one encounters a woman who clearly believed her Senate appointment was basically just a mandate to continue being her usual, wonderful self. She didn't stop doing anything she'd been doing in her pre-Senate bigshot life -- sitting on corporate boards, speaking at charity fundraisers, dining with high society pals, chancelling Guelph University -- the only difference she was now doing them as Pamela Wallin, important senator. Banquets and galas and motivational speeches transformed overnight into "Senate business" (as in, billable to taxpayers), but that was okay because, well, her ability to attend galas was why she was hired in the first place, right?

Shocker alert: the Senate doesn't do much. As a result, our more self-important senators often feel entitled to reinvent their boring jobs into something more interesting -- usually something similar to whatever glamorous thing they were doing before they got appointed. My guess, in fact, is you could probably draw a direct correlation between how accomplished a senator was in her previous life and her likelihood to claim going to the Juno Awards counts as a parliamentary duty.

Canada's Senate is an offensive waste of time and money, but if politicians like Justin Trudeau are married to the idea of keeping it, they should at least acknowledge that "high quality" appointees like Wallin have actually caused a lot more problems than they've solved.

There are, presumably, some people in this country for whom joining the Senate would actually be a humbling honor, as opposed to the latest perk of a gilded life that's come to expect them.

The Senate could use far more of these average janes and a few less women with streets named after them.

The Many Faces Of Pamela Wallin