Opinion-Policy Nexus

Published Mar. 4, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record

The headline fairly leapt off the front page of the Toronto Star last week:

“Senate in crisis.”

A subhead, printed in black and red, declared: “PM backing off support of Wallin as swirling controversies over spending, shocking sexual assault allegations have upper chamber on the defensive.” A separate box invited Star readers to look inside for “in-depth coverage” in four additional stories.

Wow! Swirling controversies and shocking allegations! Senators on the defensive! One can picture the scene: wizened senators deployed strategically in the nave of the red chamber, muskets loaded as they prepare to defend their perks and constitutional prerogatives against an invading horde of accountants, auditors and mean-spirited abolitionists from the lower house. The upper house hasn’t seen such excitement since 1986 when Pierre Trudeau’s pal, Senator Jacques Hébert, staged a 21-day hunger strike in the Senate foyer to protest the elimination of federal funding for Katimavik, a youth program he had created.

By the end of the week, the government had moved into damage control. Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that all senators had met their residency requirements — this assurance being given before the facts were in — before the Senate had completed its review of members’ residency declarations. Next we will be told that the expense accounts of all 104 sitting senators are in perfect order, even if the accountants haven’t gotten around to checking all of them. The honour system prevails.

There are three problems, of which the third is the most serious. The first is expense accounting fiddling. That happens in all organizations, and it strains credulity to be told the Senate, with its bloated spending and notoriously weak oversight, is immune.

The second is residency. The Constitution needs to be fixed, but until it is, senators are required to have their principal residences in the province they represent. If they can’t produce a health card, driver’s licence or income tax return from that province, they can theoretically be forced to forfeit their seat. Does such strict construction of the Constitution make sense these days? Not much, but it’s still the law.

It appears that 40 to 50 senators may be on thin ice on the residency issue. Harper’s assurance that they are all good to go is based on the declaration senators must make that they own at least $4,000 worth of property — a house or condo or conceivably just a garage — in the province they represent. Whether they actually live there is anyone’s guess, and that’s an issue the Senate is still trying to figure out. Until it does, the honour system will prevail.

The third and larger problem is the shabby way successive prime ministers have used the Senate. They do not scour the land in search of candidates who have ability, legislative experience or eagerness to serve. They limit their search to supporters, people who have money to donate or who have served the party loyally in the past and can be trusted to continue to serve it from the comfort of the upper house.

Harper is not the first PM to abuse the Senate this way, but he has become the most blatant offender. He appoints only Conservatives, and his insistence that they support the government in everything makes a mockery of senatorial review of government legislation and spending. His Tories control the lower house; now he has shackled the upper one.

But is the Senate in crisis, as the newspaper would have it? Not really — not any more than it has been over the years. It’s just getting a lot more attention.

The spotlight, however, makes this a very good time to get serious about a proposal that Conservative Senator Hugh Segal has been promoting for eight years. Segal, who would rank near the top of any list of most valuable senators, wants a national referendum on the future of the place: to reform it; keep it as it is; or abolish it. Yes, it’s time to ask the people.