OTTAWA – Politics – As the Senate Scandal rages on in Ottawa a debate on what role that institution is to play in the future of democracy and politics in Canada is also underway, and the three main political parties have embraced three distinct positions on the matter.
It is worth noting at the outset that there are really two distinct issues at play in the whole Senate mess. The first being ‘ethics’ related and concerns false housing and travel claims submitted by many Senators, including several high profile Conservative Senators – Mike Duffy most notably. The expense scandal has also spread to the Prime Minister’s Office where Mr. Harper has lost his most senior assistant, his Chief of Staff Nigel Wright, who admitted to writing a $90,000 cheque to Senator Duffy in exchange for his silence on the scandal. The questionable claims and the infamous cheque are now the subject of criminal investigations by the RCMP and will take some time before Canadians receive any closure, which has allowed our second debate to begin in earnest.
This second debate is an existential one, and the debate question goes something like this; “What should we do about the Senate; keep it as it is, reform it, or abolish it?” All three of the major parties have very clear and distinct views on the subject.
Before jumping into the debate, it is worth recapping exactly what the Senate does. Today, Senators are appointed by the Prime Minister of the day to represent a certain geographic area (ie: Northern Ontario). In order to qualify for appointment to the Senate, an individual must be a citizen of Canada, at least thirty years of age, and maintain property and residency (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Residency_(domicile) in the provinces or territories for which they are appointed. Once appointed, the Senator receives an annual salary of $132,000 and is entitled to serve until the age of 75. There are a total of 105 Senators and they have the power to table bills, amend bills that are tabled by the Government or the Members of Parliament in the House of Commons, and defeat bills. The current cost of operating the Senate is estimated to be between $90-120 million per year.
The party of the status-quo in the Senate is the Liberal Party of Justin Trudeau, and he has made two public comments that clearly indicate his thinking on the issue. First, during the Liberal leadership race Mr. Trudeau said that he favoured, “appointing qualified people” to the Senate as a fix to the ethical problems. More recently, when touring Quebec last month he also said to a reporter from La Presse that; “We have 24 senators from Quebec and there are just six from Alberta and six from British Columbia. That’s to our advantage.” So, Mr. Trudeau’s position on the Senate is clear; keep the Senate roughly as is with better appointees, and do so because it is of advantage to a group of Canadians that he belongs to.
If Mr. Trudeau is the champion of the status-quo, then Mr. Harper is trying hard to be the champion of reform, but that claim is dubious at best. Mr. Harper has ‘said’ that he is in favour of reforming the Senate since the 1980’s when he helped found the Reform Party with Preston Manning. The old Reform Party wanted a so-called “Triple-E Senate” that was equal, elected, and effective. Once he became leader of the Conservative Party in March 2004 Mr. Harper reaffirmed this desire, and proclaimed that; “I will not name appointed people to the Senate.” However, since becoming Prime Minister in 2006 Mr. Harper has appointed 57 Senators, all Conservatives, and has never tabled a bill to reform the Senate despite having a majority in both the House and the Senate which would guarantee its passage.
For our part, New Democrats have favoured abolishing the Senate for more than 50 years. We have never believed that democratically elected officials, Members of Parliament, should have their bills scrutinized by unelected and unaccountable patronage appointees. These Senate appointees, whether Liberal or Conservative, are a motley crew of failed candidates, party fundraisers, famous athletes, and friends of the Prime Ministers who appointed them. Worse still, these appointees are essentially given $132,000 a year jobs for life. New Democrats have always believed that the Senate as an institution is an affront to democracy, serves no practical purpose, and is a waste of taxpayer money. We do not support reforming this failed institution.
So this is the debate before us and the viewpoints of Canada’s major parties, but as you know it is what you think that really matters. As such, you will be receiving a survey on the Senate in your mailbox soon, and I hope you will take a moment to fill in the questionnaire and let me know what you think you should think be done.
John Rafferty MP
Thunder Bay Rainy River