OTTAWA — The upper chamber’s current crisis is the result of too many senators mindlessly following orders from their political masters rather than representing the interests of their region, says a former Conservative senator who champions Senate reform.
Bert Brown, a retired farmer who gained national prominence after plowing the words “Triple-E or Else” in his neighbour’s barley field, was twice elected by Albertans to represent them in the Senate. He was appointed to the red chamber by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2007 but retired this March after reaching the Senate’s mandatory retirement age of 75.
Brown spent most of his time in the Senate crisscrossing the country trying to convince provincial legislators to back Harper’s plans for a reformed Senate based on Alberta’s model for upper chamber elections. While Brown had some moderate success in provinces such as Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, Manitoba, P.E.I. and B.C., none has yet held province-wide elections and some have balked at paying the price tag for holding upper chamber elections.
Brown told The Huffington Post Canada that despite a massive public backlash against the upper house due to four senators — Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, Patrick Brazeau and Mac Harb — allegedly pocketing money they were not entitled to for travel and living expenses, he believes abolishing the chamber is not the answer.
The real problem, Brown told HuffPost, is that the overwhelming majority of senators don’t do the job they were appointed to do.
Senators are supposed to represent their province’s interest “but they don’t,” he said; they just follow what their party’s leadership tells them to do.
“They just vote either for Liberals or for Conservatives,” he said.
“I was there for five years and eight months and we voted everything that was voted to the Conservative government, every one. There was one guy who said who wanted to abstain once,” Brown recounted.
Senators toe the party line out of a sense of loyalty to the person who appointed them, the retired senator said.
Without pointing the finger directly at Duffy and Wallin — both of whom don’t actually reside in the provinces they were appointed to represent — Brown said everybody that sits in the upper house “should represent their home province; that is in the Constitution.”
If they were doing their job, they would not be “out running around doing rallies for one or another of the parties,” he said. “That is what gets them into trouble.”
“In my opinion, they should be 'rah rah-ing' for their own election in their own provinces not for anything else,” Brown said.
Brown said it’s fine for senators to promote their leader in their own province but senators shouldn’t travel the country for partisan activities. “These people get so worked up and think that a person who works as hard to become leader, they become some kind of a god you know. It becomes a little bit of a religion.”
MPs should, and do, run around the country fundraising and making announcements on behalf of their political parties, Brown said. But “there is no reason for the senators to be pitching the party.”
He told HuffPost he still dreams of an equal, effective and elected red chamber and he believes more Canadians are increasingly coming on side.
The Senate can still do “great things for this country” and abolition would just “automatically create a dictatorship,” he said.
The scandal has probably done as much good for Senate reform as it has done bad, he added, because “people who used to say, ‘Oh the Senate doesn’t seem so bad to me’ are now saying ‘Oh boy we need to be able to get rid of them.’”
“We want them required to live in the province that they come from and we want them to be re-elected or not re-elected depending on how they perform,” he said.
“Senators should be elected and if they get in very much trouble, they won’t get voted in again.”
Brown declined to comment on the allegations of wrongdoing against his former colleagues saying he didn’t want to disparage anyone’s character and that “there was nothing under the sun that hadn’t been done before.”
The retired Alberta senator had his own share of unflattering media attention after posting $43,543.94 in travel expenses during a three-month period in 2011 that covered the last election.
Brown was one of the top travellers, according to the NDP during that period. He told HuffPost his travel expenses ballooned because his wife fell ill and he expensed her travel to Ottawa and flew back to see her in Alberta every weekend to care for her.
He said he didn’t want the details published but that everyone in the Senate knew about it.
Also on HuffPost