It shouldn’t be as difficult as lawmakers say, to reform Canada’s Senate.
The recent actions (and non-actions) of a houseful of senators certainly makes the job look easier. And more necessary.
All that’s needed, really, is to impose term limits and to institute a tradition of prime ministers generally appointing people who’ve been elected in their own provinces.
Neither measure would require Canada to pass through a constitutional crisis.
The two put together would weed out the vast majority of senators who are giving the institution such a bad reputation that many Canadians would rather see the Senate disbanded altogether.
Contrary to the picture recent news stories paint, of overpaid senators soaking in hot tubs of taxpayers’ money, Canada does get some return on investment.
The job of a senator is to talk, talk, confer and to study. The talking does not include the partisan shouting, hooting and name-calling that has become the public face of your average Member of Parliament.
The big-picture jobs of Parliament do not all spring from the imagination of the sitting prime minister. Even Stephen Harper’s 24/7 political planning cannot create all the policies needed to simultaneously guide initiatives in foreign relations, immigration or pension reform, for instance.
That’s why even now, Harper’s government is proceeding with plans that use studies engaged during Jean Chretien’s administration. A lot of the discussion that informed those studies was undertaken by committees of the Senate.
Without this big-picture support, the work of Parliament would be a pendulum swing of bad laws — if governments could get anything done at all between election campaigns.
So if Canada needs a Senate (or something like it), what we don’t need is senators who do not fill their roles.
Patrick Duffy and Pamela Wallin, two former journalists who have become posters for Senate reform, would not be senators if all current rules were strictly followed. A good number of others would also be gone, if the two regulations noted above were approved.
And the Senate would produce better returns on our tax-dollar investment.
First, the issue of term limits. Set the limit at eight years, the expected life of two Parliaments. Partisan balance between Parliament and Senate would be better achieved.
A senator appointed in the last days of one prime minister would serve for years under a successor. The swing of elected ideology would be moderated.
Consider: 25 senators have refused to tell a CBC News poll where they lived, where they held a driver’s licence, registered for health care, where they voted in elections and where they paid their taxes.
One of them, Pierre de Bané, was appointed by Pierre Trudeau. He’s been a senator since 1984. Though he’s done a lot of work, particularly on issues of foreign affairs and immigration, that’s far too long in a government position without some form of review.
Tellingly, of 17 who refused outright to answer the CBC poll in any way at all (including de Bané), 16 were appointed by Stephen Harper. Wasn’t Harper a Senate-reform hawk, in a previous life?
Weren’t any of these appointees at some point of like mind?
A senator should be able to serve the people of Canada for as long as they are useful, but once every eight years, we should be able to judge their usefulness.
The embarrassment of a Patrick Duffy or Pamela Wallin appointment would be completely ruled out by holding provincial Senate elections.
Put Duffy on the stump from his vacation cottage in Prince Edward Island, and let competing candidates ask him tough questions, in front voters. Residency problem solved.
Fiscal hawks need not worry about the cost of elections. By allowing most vacant seats to remain vacant until the next federal election, these costs would be minimized.
Eventually, as the senate population rolled over (an appropriate term, all things considered) voters would become accustomed to paying attention to the qualities they want in a big-picture thinker.
A senator seeking a second term would be able to tell taxpayers what they got for his pay and perks in the first term. That alone would be worth the cost of an election.
Every region of Canada has its supply of able and inspiring leaders. We mourn that more of them do not wish to become MPs, constrained to hoot and call names from the backbenches during Question Period, and to vote on command the rest of the time.
Put them in Senate, where, talk, talk, confer and study are valued. Let their work inform the way the elected government creates law, over years, and over new Parliaments.
We don’t need a new constitutional accord to achieve that.
Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email firstname.lastname@example.org.