05/04/2015 12:50 EDT | Updated 05/04/2016 05:12 EDT

Do We Really Need the Senate?


Like many Ottawa watchers, I've been following the Duffy trial and its many tribulations. I have to admit, my emotions vary from shock with the abusive use of taxpayer dollars to boredom with days of debate over who paid for a $300 makeup bill.

More than anything, it leads me back to the bigger question of whether the Senate is relevant at all. In my work as a small business lobbyist, I've met dozens of senators over the years, and many are wonderful people who take their appointment seriously and try to take on important public policy issues or causes. For example, while I haven't always agreed with Liberal Senator Pierrette Ringuette's specific proposals, her work to highlight the negative impact of skyrocketing credit card rates on small merchants has been exemplary and has helped CFIB push for action on the file.

But the bigger question remains, does Canada still need a house of sober second thought? Do the costs outweigh the benefits? And if we do need a Senate, is the current structure delivering?

One of the groups that I trust the most to have good, practical insights is Canada's entrepreneurs. We have over 109,000 of them as members of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, and we regularly poll them to get their take on public policies that affect us as Canadians.

When asked, 69 per cent of them said they believe the Senate should be abolished. Why? Let's indulge in some real sober second thought of our own.

Even when spending responsibly (I heard that rueful chuckle), the upper chamber costs Canadians over $90 million per year. That money funds a minimum $142,400 salary, a cushy expense account, and a pension plan so gold-plated, even federal civil servants are envious.

Try as they might, Senate committees duplicate much of the work of committees of the House of Commons. Provincial input on national issues is important, but, we live in a country where provinces are more powerful than ever, with the Council of the Federation serving as a strong voice. Over the past decade, even municipal governments play a far bigger role in Ottawa, with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities now viewed as one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the country.

I am not one who believes that all of the Senate's interventions have been without merit or that the contributions of individual senators or committees have been for naught. But I do believe small business owners have a point when they question the utility of the institution at this stage in Canada's democratic history. And regardless of how storied or regal, I do think it is appropriate to question our democratic institutions and find ways to ensure they serve us best.

The majority of small business owners in every province and territory feel that the Senate has outlived its usefulness. At least one political party has staked out its ground on Senate abolition and I give them great credit for their clarity on the issue. I also know that making the changes needed to eliminate the Senate is fraught with political and constitutional risk. But if the Duffy scandal can be the match that spurs us into action, perhaps the $300 makeup charge will be money well spent.


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