Thomas Mulcair smiled as James Moore concluded his first response. The NDP leader had asked the government side to account for the dispatch of investigators to check on the recipients of employment insurance and Mr. Moore had stood to accuse Mr. Mulcair of mongering fear and to explain that this was about seeking to “protect the integrity of the system.”
Mr. Mulcair chuckled and crooked his head as he stood to respond. “Mr. Speaker, that’s it,” the NDP leader observed, “for the unemployed, we send the secret police, and senators, we do not even ask where they live.”
The New Democrats laughed.
So the first question this day had been both an expression of concern and a setup. And so the Senate seems to have returned to its natural place in our civic and societal order as an enduring subject of complaint and mockery. It is not that the Senate has reached some new low in recent weeks. It is merely that, after a period of relative quiet, we have once again found reason to variously question and lament its existence. It might make more fiscal sense, in this period of austerity, to convert the chamber into lofts, but then we wouldn’t have the Senate to kick around anymore. And what fun would that be? At least as a punchline, it might be forever relevant.
“The Auditor General revealed that when it comes to expenses, the Senate operates on the honour system. Senators are not required to provide any documents even as they submit claims for tens of thousands of dollars,” Mr. Mulcair recounted. “Why the honour system for senators and home interrogations for the unemployed?”
Mr. Moore was terribly disappointed with Mr. Mulcair’s tone. “Mr. Speaker, the second part of his question is, of course, not true,” the Heritage Minister admonished. “Hyperbole aside, the NDP leader should know better than to fear-monger to those in our society who are most vulnerable.”
As pertains to the Senate, Mr. Moore reported the government to be fully supportive of transparency. “Equally, we are following through on our commitment to reform the Senate to make sure that we have Senate elections and term limits for senators,” Mr. Moore claimed. “If NDP members actually believe their rhetoric about modernizing the institution, they will stop blocking this legislation and move forward in a responsible way.”
If the New Democrats believed in electing senators, presumably they might. But they don’t. And if the Conservatives were truly committed to reform, they might move forward with their own legislation. But they haven’t. And so here we are.
Mr. Mulcair was unpersuaded by Mr. Moore’s appeal. “Mr. Speaker, actually, the guidebook for EI home inspectors makes it clear that they are required to demand financial records, which is one set of rules for the unemployed and another for their unelected, unaccountable, unapologetic senators,” he declared, putting emphasis on the possessive pronoun. “Why do the Conservatives continue to defend Pamela Wallin, Mike Duffy and Patrick Brazeau while treating the unemployed as if they were a bunch of liars and criminals?”
Mr. Moore stood and repeated John Baird’s line of last Thursday: that somehow Mr. Mulcair had contradicted himself in acknowledging the Senate’s existence while also wishing to see the chamber abolished. And so we are all apparently trapped by cognitive dissonance.
Here though was another segue, now from the Senate to the Senate’s new interest in the Parliamentary Budget Officer. Seems there is some concern over the PBO’s mandate and Kevin Page’s willingness to seek legal clarification in his pursuit of information about the government’s spending.
This afternoon, Peggy Nash wondered aloud if the Conservatives were using the Senate to do their “dirty work.”
“Mr. Speaker, that particular individual’s term is nearly up,” Tony Clement responded. “What I can tell the honourable member is that there is a process in place which is designed to find a credible, non-partisan replacement for that particular individual.”
So, apparently, Mr. Page is now he who must not be named.
“Kevin Page’s legal case is all about ensuring fiscal accountability. However, the Senate is threatening to shut the Parliamentary Budget Officer down,” Ms. Nash shot back. “What will the government do to stand up for taxpayers, stop this undemocratic charade and will the government call off its senators?”
Mr. Clement proceeded not to disclose the spending cut information Mr. Page seeks, but a series of large numbers the Conservatives have assigned to the NDP’s spending plans.
Tomorrow, the House will consider whether or not to proceed with abolishment of the Senate. Down the hall, the Senate will be considering whether or not to reprimand Kevin Page. Those who seek the chamber’s elimination might actually hope that the Senate does indeed decide to challenge someone else’s mandate and authority—particularly someone who has been described as “the best friend the Canadian taxpayer has.”
Otherwise, the Senate might realize that its best hope for the future is to bring itself as little attention as possible and hope to endure as a universal, but relatively benign, point of complaint.