The way the Senate was

Talk of 'honour' at the Duffy trial shows what must change

Pawel Dwulit/Toronto Star/Getty Images

Pawel Dwulit/Toronto Star/Getty Images

I have a soft spot for Canadian senators. Before you judge me—before you ridicule the very notion of any working journalist still harbouring a shred of sympathy for Parliament Hill’s patronage pariahs—consider how the old guys got to me over the years.

You weren’t there. I’m thinking, for instance, of a couple of days after Pierre Trudeau died on Sept. 28, 2000, when Sen. Jack Austin set aside an hour to spin for me some tales of his travels with Trudeau in, oh, China and Pakistan, South America and Africa.

Austin had been Trudeau’s principal secretary before his boss appointed him to the Senate in 1975. After Trudeau retired he kind of conscripted his trusted former adviser into organizing some trips over several years. When I arrived at Austin’s office to interview him about those off-the-beaten-track vacations, he asked his secretary to bring in some cookies, arranged himself in a comfortable chair, his legs over one of its arms like a teenager in a rec room, and munched as he reminisced.

Soon I was hearing about the time Trudeau sat discussing God with some Coptic priests on the simple wooden pew of a rural church in Ethiopia, and about the time he and Austin encountered a party of tribesmen wearing only penis gourds on an Indonesian jungle trail, and more along those lines.

There was another memorable interview, not so long ago, in 2011, when I found myself in Parliament’s glowering East Block, in an office once occupied by Sir John A. Macdonald, no less, which was by then the lair of Sen. Doug Finley, the Conservative campaign supremo.

Finley was being treated for cancer at the time (he would die in 2013) and was in a contemplative mood, I discovered, when he surprised me by finally agreeing to a sit-down interview. It was a bright February day, but the winter sunlight came in warmed by old stained glass.

Finley’s voice had never lost the burr he brought from Scotland to Canada, which added a little something as he told me about the gritty brand of politics he had perfected, about how far the new Conservatives had come, and about what they needed to do to hold power. There was a certain dissonance, I thought, between his pride in what he clearly still viewed as a political insurgency and the insider, establishment status he had obviously attained as Stephen Harper’s top strategist.

Having these veterans installed on the Hill appeals to the part of me that values proximity to good yarns. The term “institutional memory” doesn’t do justice to what they often possess; political lore at its best is also intensely personal. And yet, when the subject of the Senate itself came up, I didn’t hide from Austin or Finley, or from other senators I’ve interviewed over the years, my view of the upper chamber as an embarrassing anachronism.

Telling a senator directly that you think the Senate, as an appointed legislative body, is an affront to democracy can elicit various reactions. Some shrug off what is, after all, a familiar point. Some counter it by citing some useful Senate committee study or the irreproachable work of individual senators on worthy causes. Surprisingly often a senator will resort to a wounded reference to the institution’s honourable traditions.

It was this notion of honour that came up last Friday at the trial of Mike Duffy. The trial’s first week was occupied mainly by testimony from Mark Audcent, a retired longtime Senate law clerk (who often reminded me, with his air of antique dignity and pride, of the butler Stevens from Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day). Trying to explain in court why the rules of the Senate are not terribly precise about such matters as what expense claims are allowed and not allowed, Audcent explained that “infused in the institution is a culture of respect for senators.”

He added plangently, “I mean, they are senators of Canada.” But the era when a senator’s honour could be presumed is, as Audcent tacitly allowed, perhaps over. As Nick Kohler reported for Maclean’s, he observed, “Now we’re getting into a world of controls and checks, and all those kinds of things.”

We can only hope he’s right about that. But administrative stringency regarding Senate expenses can’t fix the underlying problem. Even if senators are kept on their best behaviour, they remain unelected and unaccountable. The Supreme Court of Canada has—quite correctly under Canada’s rules for amending the Constitution—made it enormously difficult for the Senate to be seriously overhauled or abolished.

And that allows only limited room for reform. What it comes down to, I fear, might be leaving the institution more or less as we’ve unfortunately inherited it, but putting a stop to the pattern of partisan influence that has made senators such fascinating interview subjects in even the recent past.

The innovation Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau introduced by surprise at the start of last year—kicking Liberal senators out of his caucus and denying them standing among his party’s campaign and fundraising elite—is a plausible partial solution. If the Senate must remain constitutionally attached to our parliamentary system, then as a practical matter, senators must no longer be, in the way of Austin and Finley and many others, significant players in their parties.

Tradition will lean against every effort to drain the Senate of serious clout. Don’t underestimate the allure of old ways, especially when wedded to expediency. I believe it was Marcel Proust, or perhaps Don Draper, who said, “Nostalgia—it’s delicate, but potent.” I’m susceptible. I’m glad to have met those senators and reported their stories, but I hope the day is coming when I won’t have much cause anymore to visit their shadowy offices.