The Commons: And so Stephen Harper finds himself having to defend unelected Senators - Macleans.ca

The Commons: And so Stephen Harper finds himself having to defend unelected Senators

Oh for the bygone simplicity of Senate reform

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In being the last of the major parties never to have formed a federal government, the NDP has won something almost nearly as satisfying: the right to pronounce shame on the Senate. Perhaps the meek shall one day inherit the earth, but first those unencumbered by never having had to do anything about the Senate shall inherit the righteous indignation about the chamber’s continued existence.

“Mr. Speaker, in the Senate, the more things change, the more they stay the same,” Thomas Mulcair sighed this afternoon. “Senator Pamela Wallin claimed more than $300,000 in travel expenses over the last three years alone. Less than ten percent of these costs were used for her movements in Saskatchewan. This is taxpayers’ money that Senator Wallin used to walk across the country to star in fundraising for the Conservatives. Does the Prime Minister think it is acceptable for taxpayers’ money to be used to raise funds for his political party?”

It is unclear how much of Mr. Mulcair’s aspersion here can be precisely substantiated—specifically how much of Senator Wallin’s travel expenses could be said to have resulted from partisan activities. Suffice it to say, the Prime Minister “regretted” the opposition leader’s “characterization.”

“In terms of Senator Wallin, I have looked at the numbers,” Mr. Harper reported.

Stand down, Deloitte.

“Her travel costs are comparable to any parliamentarian travelling from that particular area of the country over that period of time. For instance, last year Senator Wallin spent almost half of her time in the province she represents in the Senate. The costs are obviously to travel to and from that province, as any similar parliamentarian would do.”

Mr. Mulcair was not quite reassured.

“Mr. Speaker, when Pamela Wallin was appointed to the Senate it was well-known that she had not lived in Saskatchewan in decades,” he reported. “When Mike Duffy was appointed to the Senate, it was well-known that he had not lived on Prince Edward Island in decades. When Patrick Brazeau was appointed to the Senate, it was well-known that he had serious personal and ethical issues. These are the Prime Minister’s own appointments. When will the Prime Minister take responsibility for his senators?”

The NDP leader stressed the possessive pronoun.

“Mr. Speaker, obviously the leader of the opposition is mixing different cases,” the Prime Minister lamented.

There were chuckles from the NDP side.

“In the case of Senator Brazeau,” Mr. Harper continued, “I would point out that not long before I named Senator Brazeau, at the request of the NDP he spoke here on the floor of the House of Commons.”

It is unclear whether this—a reference to Mr. Brazeau’s participation in the residential schools apology—should serve to sufficiently explain or defend the Prime Minister’s decision to appoint him to the Senate.

“He was a respected leader of a national aboriginal organization,” the Prime Minister explained. “Obviously, some things have happened more recently that are before the courts and the Senate has taken the appropriate action under the circumstances.”

Later, the New Democrats pressed on and so Government House leader Peter Van Loan was compelled to stand and plead the Conservatives’ case.

“Mr. Speaker, NDP members do seem to like to tar with a broad brush a wide number of good people, including Senator Wallin,” Mr. Van Loan lamented.

There were chuckles from the NDP side.

“And they are doing so using what they say is a non-partisan person,” Mr. Van Loan continued. “We heard in the statement by the member for Burnaby—New Westminster earlier a reference to a professor … That professor, Mr. Leeson, is actually a former staff member to two NDP premiers and is currently on board the Team Trent leadership campaign for the NDP. Not only is he not a non-partisan official, he is not even non-partisan within the NDP.”

There were now chuckles from the Conservatives.

If nothing else then, the Conservatives can tell their supporters this much: at least we haven’t appointed to the Senate any professors with known links to the NDP.

But then Mr. Van Loan hadn’t quite rebutted the most seemingly damning part of Peter Julian’s statement.

“The average senator,” the MP for Burnaby-New Westminster reported, “worked only 56 days last year.”

Presumably that is based on a calculation of sitting days minus absences and divided by senators. And perhaps “sitting days” isn’t a perfect analogy for days “worked.” But even if it was a New Democrat who was responsible for devising this conclusion, if the math is correct, the fact is more difficult to dismiss.

Nineteen years ago this Friday, a relatively young Reform MP, elected just four months previous, stood to comment on legislation to allow the construction of a bridge to Prince Edward Island. Because of the province’s terms of union, this was actually a constitutional matter. And since this was a constitutional matter, the relatively young Reform MP proceeded with a long speech about the possibility of reforming the Senate.

“It is interesting to see in this century what has happened to upper houses, not just in the anglo-American world but across the world. Those houses that were built mainly or almost exclusively on pre-democratic theory have atrophied or disappeared. I think, for example, of the House of Lords in Britain which still exists today but which has largely been stripped of its powers and exists, I suggest, as a relic of another era. In the case of our provinces, the legislative councils, the upper houses of the provinces, which really had an exclusive pre-democratic function, have entirely disappeared, the last being in Quebec in 1968,” the Reform MP explained. “However, those houses built on the concept of regional representation within a federation have remained and by and large flourished as legislative chambers. The Senates in the United States and Australia have become elected bodies and have become very powerful.”

At the time, Stephen Harper’s plea was apparently simple. “Senate election, which I have spoken on specifically, is a partial solution that does not even require opening the Constitution in order to proceed,” he said. “It only requires a basic sense of fairness.”

Twelve years later, he became Prime Minister. And seven years after that, he decided that the Supreme Court’s advice was necessary as to the constitutionality of his decision.

One might wonder whether the principle of regional representation as manifest in the Senate—how many people in New Brunswick sleep better tonight knowing they have 10 senators—makes it worth worrying about Senator Wallin’s travel expenses.